Annunciation and call

Duane Michals - The Annunciation

One afternoon, in a small window of time between when my students departed at the end of another two-week block course and my turning of attention to report writing, I spent a few moments reflecting on the mysterious relationship between what we ecclesiastical types call ‘call’ and the ancient (its origins were in the 5th century) Feast of the Annunciation – that much-downplayed event in the church’s calendar set to mark the archangel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and become theotokos (God-bearer), and Mary’s fiat, her ready reception of this most inconceivable of happenings.

One thing that struck me was that this feast, which is observed on 25 March – a full term before the celebration of ‘the birth’ – coincides with Good Friday during those seasons when Holy Week happens in March. This not to be glossed over. For the real subject of the Feast is none other than he who was, at least according to one modern translation of the Bible, ‘slain from the creation of the world’ (Rev 13.8). The entirety of human history, in other words, has a distinct mark of the pietà about it, of the fragile God given into human hands. And there is something peculiarly cataclysmic too about 25 March: according to tradition, events as diverse as the creation of the earth, the creation of Adam, Lucifer’s fall, and the crossing of the Red Sea are all supposed to have happened on this date. And yet, none of these events are as significant to the church as the broadcast to a young girl that she is to bear in her womb the very one in whom, by whom and for whom all things exist. Her womb becomes the place where all life, all that will be, is born. Her womb is also the place where she will feel the pain of her son’s death at the hands of violent strangers, and the pain of lifelessness as he who once suckled on her warm breasts in now laid in a cold rock-hewn tomb belonging to some Sanhedrin member from Arimathea.

A further thing that struck me was the way in which this Feast trumpets Christian ministry’s most basic confession; namely, its impossibility – impossibility marked by the unrelenting command to witness to the sheer givenness of God’s unexpected and messy irruption among us and in us. That Christian ministry and theology, as Valdir Steuernagel has it, is ‘born in the guts, twisted by the shock of God’s visit’, and that ‘the cradle of theology is stupefaction, when we find ourselves absolutely lost and completely thankful for God’s visit’, is not the stuff of carefully manufactured and controlled environments. To offer one’s womb so that the life of another might be formed in us, to embrace waiting, to receive the burden of vocation along with others – others who, like cousin Elizabeth, help us to carry on – is to feel ‘pulled into God’s history’. And to be drowned in baptism (sometimes called ‘ordination’) is to discover oneself a character in the divine humour, the early gurglings of him who will have the last laugh. The Feast of the Annunciation is the church’s answer to those who refute that laughter, and the claim that vocations born of Yes’s like Mary’s are marked above all else by anything other than extreme ambiguity.

Most of my window, however, was spent reading and thinking with three poems on the annunciation – one by the Irish poet-priest John O’Donohue, one by the well-known English poet Elizabeth Jennings, and one by the great Welsh poet-priest R. S. Thomas – poems I wanted to share with readers here.

Cast from afar before the stones were born
And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,
The words have waited for the hunger in her
To become the silence where they could form.

The day’s last light frames her by the window,
A young woman with distance in her gaze,
She could never imagine the surprise
That is hovering over her life now.

The sentence awakens like a raven,
Fluttering and dark, opening her heart
To nest the voice that first whispered the earth
From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;
Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

–  John O’Donohue, ‘The Annunciation’, in Conamara Blues (London: Bantom Books, 2001), 61.

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Nothing will ease the pain to come
Though now she sits in ecstasy
And lets it have its way with her.
The angel’s shadow in the room
Is lightly lifted as if he
Had never terrified her there.

The furniture again returns
To its old simple state. She can
Take comfort from the things she knows
Though in her heart new loving burns
Something she never gave to man
Or god before, and this god grows

Most like a man. She wonders how
To pray at all, what thanks to give
And whom to give them to. “Alone
To all men’s eyes I now must go”
She thinks, “And by myself must live
With a strange child that is my own.”

So from her ecstasy she moves
And turns to human things at last
(Announcing angels set aside).
It is a human child she loves
Though a god stirs beneath her breast
And great salvations grip her side.

– Elizabeth Jennings, ‘The Annunciation’, in Collected Poems (Manchester/New York: Carcanet Press, 1986), 45–46.

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She came like a saint
to her bride-bed, hands
clasped, mind clenched
on a promise. ‘Some

fell by the wayside,’
she whispered. ‘Come, birds,
winnow the seed lest
standing beside a chaste

cradle with a star
over it, I see flesh
as snow fallen and think
myself mother of God.’

– R. S. Thomas, ‘Annunciation’, in Collected Later Poems, 1988–2000 (Highgreen: Bloodaxe, 2004), 194.

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[Image: Duane Michals, ‘The Annunciation, 6/25’. Gelatin Silver Print, 8 x 10 in. Source]

‘He atones not with blood’, by R. S. Thomas

He atones not with blood
but with the transfusions
that are the substitute of its loss.

Under the arc-lamps
we suffer the kisses
of the infected needle,

satisfied to be the saviour
not of the world, not
of the species, but of the one

anonymous member
of the gambling party
at the foot of the cross.

– R. S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 38.

R. S. Thomas on wonderful people, and on Non-Conformity

(c) DACS and Sir Kyffin Williams; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationJ. B. Lethbridge’s interview with R. S. Thomas, published in the Anglo-Welsh Review, is a delightful compliment to a mid-morning strong cup of tea. Here are two enjoyable moments from Thomas:

‘I’m very conscious as an idea that there must be wonderful people in the world, but I don’t meet them’.

‘I’m sort of Non-Conformist without agreeing with the Non-Conformist way of worship. I find the average Non-Conformist place of worship so ugly. Not that the [Established] churches are much better, but the average Non-Conformist chapel is such a hideous place – I can’t worship. And yet I like the sort of freedom, their emphasis on the Bible as being the sort of direct word of God to the individual, that you don’t need a priest to come between you and God. I like their disassociation from the Establishment in England, the King and Queen and this sort of rubbish. I like it for that side. I don’t like the system of deacons … I dislike cathedrals on the whole, big places, because they are associated in my mind with English imperialism. I see these royal processions and the bishop in all his regalia and the Union Jack flying, you know, hanging in the corner. I look upon the Church of England as having betrayed Christianity by its acquiescence in war and this sort of thing’.

‘The Bright Field’, by RS Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

– RS Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 302.

‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
……        ………..On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

– RS Thomas, ‘The Coming’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 234.

‘The Empty Church’

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

– RS Thomas, ‘The Empty Church’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 349.

[Image: Tara Alan & Tyler Kellen]

‘The Word’

A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
man.’ And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,

until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out

the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’

– RS Thomas, ‘The Word’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 265.

Nota Bene

‘Not the empty tomb’, by R.S. Thomas

Not the empty tomb
but the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven. But the verities
remain: a de-nuclearised
cross, uncontaminated
by our coinage; the chalice’s
ichor; and one crumb of bread
on the tongue for the bird-like
intelligence to be made tame by.

– R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 37.

‘Epiphany’, by R.S. Thomas

Three kings? Not even one
any more. Royalty
has gone to ground, its journeyings
over. Who now will bring

gifts and to what place? In
the manger there are only the toys
and the tinsel. The child
has become a man. Far

off from his cross in the wrong
season he sits at table
with us with on his head
the fool’s cap of our paper money.

– RS Thomas, ‘Epiphany’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 363.

‘It is one of those faces’, by R.S. Thomas

It is one of those faces
beginning to disappear
as though life were at work
with its eraser. It drizzles
at the window through which
I regard it. As one realising
its peril, it accosts me
in silence at every corner
of my indifference, appealing
to me to save it gratuitously
from extinction. There was a moment
it became dear to me, a skull
brushed by a smile as the sun
brushes a stone through ravelled
passages in the hill mist.
Must I single it with a name?
I am coming to believe,
as I age, so faithful its attendance
upon the eye’s business, it is myself
I court; that this face, vague
but compelling, is a replica
of my own face hungry for meaning
at life’s pane, but blearing it
over as much with my shortness
of faith as of breath.

– R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 46.

‘God’s fool, God’s jester’, by R.S. Thomas

God’s fool, God’s jester
capering at his right hand
in torment, proving the fallacy
of the impassible, reminding
him of omnipotence’s limits.

I have seen the figure
on our human tree, burned
into it by thought’s lightning
and it writhed as I looked.

A god has no alternative
but himself. With what crown
plurality but with thorns?
Whose is the mirthless laughter
at the beloved irony
at his side? The universe over,
omniscience warns, the crosses
are being erected from such
material as is available
to remorse. What are the stars
but time’s fires going out
before ever the crucified
can be taken down?
Today
there is only this one option
before me. Remembering,
as one goes out into space,
on the way to the sun,
how dark it will grow,
I stare up into the darkness
of his countenance, knowing it
a reflection of the three days and nights
at the back of love’s looking –
glass even a god must spend.

– R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 36–7.

‘To be alive then’, by R.S. Thomas

To be alive then
was to be aware how necessary
prayer was and impossible.

The philosophers had done
their work well, demolishing
proofs we never believed in.

We were drifting in space-
time, in touch with what we had
left and could not return to.

We rehearsed the excuses
for the deficiencies of love’s
kingdom, avoiding our eyebeams.

Beset, as we were,
with science’s signposts, we whimpered
to no purpose that we were lost.

We are here still. What
is survival’s relationship
with meaning? The answer once

was the bone’s music at the lips
of time. We are incinerating
them both now in the mind’s crematorium.

– R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 44.

‘There is a being, they say’, by R.S. Thomas

There is a being, they say,
neither body nor spirit,
that is more power than reason, more reason
than love, whose origins
are unknown, who is apart
and with us, the silence
to which we appeal, the architect
of our failure. It takes the genes
and experiments with them and our children
are born blind, or seeing have
smooth hands that are the instruments
of destruction. It is the spoor
in the world’s dark leading away
from the discovered victim, the expression
the sky shows us after
an excess of spleen. It has gifts it
distributes to those least fitted
to use them. It is everywhere and
nowhere, and looks sideways into the shocked face
of life, challenging it to disown it.

– R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1990), 20.

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

‘The Musician’, by R. S. Thomas

A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin,
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.

I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art’s neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.

So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.

– R. S. Thomas, ‘The Musician’ in Tares (Chester Springs: Dufour Editions, 1961), 19.