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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Saturday, March 01, 2008The Man Who Went into the West, and some who followed It seems to me that every significant journey I make intuitively takes me westwards. So the highlight of my recent escape into Snowdonia was reading Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas, and then following in the steps of The Man Who Went into the West by making my own sortie to the church at Aberdaron, where Wales ends, as Rogers puts it, 'at the headland which is the index finger of the Lleyn Peninsula pointing towards the island of Bardsey, graveyard of the saints.'
Sainthood not having been bestowed on Thomas (he gets given plenty more critical titles than that in this scintillatingly honest book), it was back along the road in Porthmadog churchyard where I found the modest stone beneath which lie his ashes (for now, pending the resolution of family feuds). But at Aberdaron, as waves crashed white against the churchyard wall in a wild high tide, I got a real sense of the environment which helped shape Thomas into the 'austere, unforgiving, taciturn, wintry man' he was known to be, and the astonishing poet-priest whose words bespoke his bitter sense of the absence of God:
Why, then, do I kneel stillHe had these questions, but he carried them through an entire adult life as a minister in the Church of Wales. Contradictions abound in Thomas's life. He sought after his Welshness at a succession of increasingly remote parishes whilst encountering increasingly more loud English holidaymakers in each. Fittingly, if surprisingly, Rogers' insightful work reveals comedy and absurdity as central aspects of Thomas's character - and his marriage of 51 years to the artist Elsi Eldridge. The elderly couple's first act on moving into an ancient cottage 'was to rip out the central heating' - which illustrates a relationship both austere and oddly warm.
Aberdaron church was also poorly heated in Thomas's time. There, 'sometimes wet through in his cassock in winter, he pulled on the outside bell', Rogers writes, and a vicar who succeeded him, Evelyn Davies, says 'Bless him, there was no one else to do it.' I found this a powerful image, and so when I made my way from the top of that churchyard round to the front door last Tuesday I was gripped to see a man there, alone, struggling in the same way to pull on that rope as the wind sang through it and the tiny bell's sound drowned in the sea's roar. He described himself as 'the new vicar ... two weeks' and invited me to join him in Daily Prayer. It was 11.00.
He handed me a copy of Out of the Silence ... Into the Silence which is one of the most wonderfully crafted works of liturgy I've seen, and as we wove the words between us while the wind whistled around the church corners it dawned on me what he'd said before we started: these were his words. Turns out that Aberdaron's new vicar is Jim Cotter, whose work Margaret Hebblethwaite describes as 'writing so radical, prayerful, and authentic that no-one seriously involved in spirituality can afford to be without these modern classics.' He refers to himself as a 'Wordsmith / Godstriver / Cairnbuilder / Webtrembler / Exploring the spiritual / Encouraging seekers / Challenging old understandings'. Jim Cotter seems to share quite some characteristics of his lauded poet predecessor.
It was a delight to find Jim in Aberdaron, holding the silence way out in the windswept West. I'm sure the words will keep coming to him there. He's already wondering how he'll cope when the holidaymakers arrive.