Thursday, July 1, 2010


(My friend, Andrew Rogness, died of cancer in 2010. Andrew was a good man, a loved and loving husband and father, a great friend, a caring pastor, and a theologian of depth. This post is written in his memory.)

R.S. Thomas
The Welsh-Anglican priest and Nobel-nominated poet R.S. Thomas, in his poetry as in life, wrestled with doubt and the absence of God, but emerged with faith nonetheless (often seemingly in spite of himself). He would have agreed with contemporary theologian Douglas John Hall that "the Bible-writers will give up on the glory of God before they'll deny the reality of human suffering," and with the writer of the 23rd psalm that human life is, in fact, a walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

In his poem, "Geriatric," Thomas looks straight at these verities and discovers that not even God escapes the reality of suffering; he is "torn" by the brambles, too. As is typical of Thomas, he expresses a hope that sounds faint, but is actually so deep that it is beyond our ability to completely grasp.

(At the risk of providing cues that are an insult to the reader's intelligence: Charcot and Meniere are -- like Alzheimer's -- diseases [and, in memory of Andrew, we could add "cancer.] "Rabbi Ben Ezra" is the source of the Robert Browning line, "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be....")


What god is proud
      of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
      grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
      currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
      in a last desperate effort
to retain hold? Despite withered
      petals, I recognise
the species: Charcot, Meniere,
      Alzheimer. There are no gardeners
here, caretakers only
      of reason overgrown
by confusion. This body once,
      when it was in bud,
opened to love's kisses. These eyes,
      cloudy with rheum,
were clear pebbles that love's rivulet
      hurried over. Is this
the best Rabbi Ben Ezra
      promised? I come away
comforting myself, as I can,
      that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
      and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in,
      a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
      than we can understand.

Andrew has now emerged from the valley's shadow, and out of the brambles. Here's to green pastures and the fragrance of that other garden.

Douglas John Hall quote from God and Human Suffering, Augsburg, 1986
The poem, "Geriatric," from No Truce With the Furies, by R.S. Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 1995
More on R. S. Thomas here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dick, for the timeliness of this writing. I believe my dad is close to death at this time, and I plan to go to be at his bedside tomorrow. But, I rejoice in the notion of emerging "from the valley's shadow and out of the brambles" of a stroke, Parkinson's Disease, and the end of life (on earth) as it approaches. Thank goodness - and thank God - for the knowledge of the "green pastures and the fragrance of that other garden" in store for my dad! -Ann

Becky Hanson said...

Deep thanks, Dick. This entry captures for me the conundrum of love and loss, hope and despair that are part and parcel of this human life. It hurts to walk through the brambles, and it hurts even more to helplessly watch those we love walk through the brambles. I appreciate the poem so much and will immediately order the book No Truce With the Furies. You've made today better for me already. Thank you.