Many years ago I discovered the poetry of R.S. Thomas. I can’t remember how it happened. Perhaps I was drawn to the name I knew to be Welsh and so I began to read. The poem that I read and have continued to read every now and then is simply called ‘The Other’. It paints with Word a picture of someone, sleepless, lying awake listening for the sounds one hears in the night, sounds that often are magnified in the wee hours, sounds that can be frightening or calming depending on what it is that is keeping us awake. This sleepless one allows the sound of the waves to lull him into imagining another who is always awake, who is companion in both sleep and wakefulness, receiving our prayers over and over into eternity.
The first time I read this poem I probably wept. The words were so rich and the depth of feeling so raw with the hope of having prayers heard…by someone, anyone. And today this poem came into even sharper focus for me. Stumbling as I did into a small church on the northwest coast of Wales, I found a whole wall dedicated to this poet who was vicar of this church from 1967-1978, this church which hangs on an outcrop of land with the sea’s waves crashing just outside the door. I did not know that Thomas had been a minister here. Being in this place was pure chance and I was taken by surprise to find this connection.
Walking around the church I saw evidence that this tiny parish is vital and still engaged in the big, deep questions that Thomas loved. Every nook and cranny is filled with simplicity and beauty that reflects the land, air, sky and sea that no doubt has shaped the identity of this small village, that has created the theology that holds them. The words chosen to welcome and those that fill a booklet meant to lead the guest around the space are poetic and well chosen. They are clearly a people who have been led by someone whose love of language must have been ever present, someone who had won several awards for literature and, I learned today, was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. When I say this is a small church, I mean it could not seat more than maybe 150-200 people. Given the state of most churches in villages this size to see one that appears so vital warms my heart and to have found it seems like some amazing gift.
Most of my life I have been a good sleeper. But over the last months there have been times that I, like Thomas, have been awake listening to every strange and tiny sound that creaks through the house. Usually in these night time thrashings, I go over all the things I have done, usually the ones for which I am filled with regret or those that I wish I could undo. Or I lay there making a skin deep list of all I have left undone, the procrastinations or details that eluded me in the waking hours. This stew pot can get hot pretty fast and before I know it, it is boiling. Does this sound familiar to you?
Tonight, as I lay my head down in the deep darkness of a place with no streetlights or ambient light, I can hear the waves crashing over and over just outside the hotel window. Just next door the church is standing as it has stood for centuries receiving the sound of the waves. Inside the door is a simple piece of wood with the words for ‘The Other’ printed in crude letters. My prayer is that if tonight brings sleep or restlessness that I have the grace to imagine the One who is awake as well holding my prayers…and your prayers…the prayers of those with deep faith…and the prayers of those whose doubt is real. May The Other receive the prayers of the world this night..for a few hours…and for eternity.