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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, April 26, 2008
    All absence is presence, and all presence is absence
     
    Often I try
    To analyse the quality
    Of its silences. Is this where God hides
    From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
    After the people have gone,
    To the air recomposing itself
    For vigil.
    Not everyone's idea of a great Saturday morning, but definitely mine. A seminar led by Rod Garner entitled With and without God: the religion and poetry of George Herbert & R.S.Thomas denied me a lie-in today, and it was hard work, required constant attention, but was well worth it. I suspect that Rod included Herbert in his programme to lever in some punters unfamiliar with R.S., but of course for me it was Thomas who was the draw.

    Rod began the day by explaining that in R.S. Thomas, prayer embraces the sense of "the divine absence and presence being the same thing". "All absence is presence," Rod said, "and all presence is absence. If you don't get that then you won't get R.S. Thomas' poetry at all."

    At this point I could have sworn that I heard footsteps and the lecture room door closing behind me, though perhaps it was just someone deciding to stand outside for air before returning to the deep interior. This person would have missed Rod then explaining the presence-absence simultaneity by describing a Nick Hornby scene, where a young man nestling against his sleeping lover - thoroughly present to her - realises that one day she will no longer be there. And one alert seminar participant then added a reflection on the strong presence of the lost loved one so often experienced by the bereaved. And this was just the first three minutes of the 150 we shared. Great stuff.
                     There is no other sound
    In the darkness but the sound of a man
    Breathing, testing his faith
    On emptiness, nailing his questions
    One by one to an untenanted cross.
    R.S. Thomas, In Church