Lenten Wisdom in Verse – First Sunday in Lent

So often the enemy of our spiritual disciplines is busyness, or at least the appearance and spectre of busyness, which convinces us we have no time for what is most important so that we can distract ourselves with what is least important.

Today I offer a poem by one of my favourite poets, Welsh writer and Priest, R.S. Thomas. What follows is commentary on the poem by Malcolm Guite, who has been leading us through these poems for the last number of days.

The Bright Field

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
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give 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.

–  R.S. Thomas
Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter.  We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps a little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten journey … So to celebrate the first of them here is R.S. Thomas’ famous poem, ‘The Bright Field’.  This beautiful little poem brings us to the heart of a gospel paradox and also takes us deep into the mystery of time. The paradox is about losing to find, giving away to gain, giving everything up  only to find it given back in a new and more beautiful form.  Jesus came again and again to this paradox in his teaching, and R.S. Thomas has responded in his poem to two parables told in quick succession in Matthew’s Gospel:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.   (Matthew 13.44-46)
The beauty of these parables is that they fill out the positive form that redeems what might seem to be the pure negativity of ‘giving up’ and ‘selling all’ which informs our Lenten abstinence.  The gospel is not about giving up and going without for its own sake; it is about making room for something wonderful.  It is about clearing out the clutter, not only making the space but taking the time for the kingdom that might seem tiny as a mustard seed but will prove, in due course, to be the great branching tree in whose canopy we all find a place. But we must glimpse the seed, buy the field, take the time, and lose it all by ‘hurrying by’.
It is fascinating  to see what Thomas has done with these parables, how their familiar terms are refracted in his poetic imagination, and represented, glowing anew and fused now with that other archetypal moment and glimpse of heaven, the story of Moses and the burning bush.
He wins us, to begin with, by confession of what we have all done.  These are not the proud words of some exclusive mystic who has ‘got’ the vision when others haven’t; rather he confesses that he too has ‘seen the sun break through’ but also, like us, ‘gone my way and forgotten it’. But, paradoxically, he has not really forgotten it.  The very writing and sharing  of the poem shows that, and if he too, even in the making of this poem, can find it again then so can we in reading it.  As the poem moves from from the past to the present tense, from ‘I have seen…’ to ‘I realize now…’, we are called, even as we read it, into the present continuous, to that ‘turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her long poem Aurora Leigh also brings us to such a moment; indeed, she takes it further, suggesting that these glimpses of glory are not just a wistful one-off in an otherwise empty desert but are richly available to us always and everywhere, if only we have eyes to see and time to stop:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
(Aurora Leigh, lines 61-3)
Thomas concludes his little free verse sonnet (even its form is a paradox!) with a further paradox about time that is perhaps the most beautiful and hopeful thing in the poem.  He points to
a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Here we discover that what we thought was lost and receding is in reality still ahead of us; we are not declining towards a sunset, but travelling toward the dawn!
Monday
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