Via Negativa

by R. S. Thomas


Original Language English

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

-- from Through Corridors of Light: Poems of Consolation in Time of Illness, Edited by John Andrew Denny

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is a haunting poem, yet lovely and uplifting at the same time. God is a kind of a ghost in this poem, a tangible absence.

...God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within...


And that is really the poet's point. So often we struggle to imagine what God is, the qualities and awareness associated with that immense... Something. But this poem is a meditation on the Via Negativa, that is, the recognition that the Eternal is not a "thing" at all. Every definition or description or quality we attach to the Divine is necessarily a limitation on the Divine Nature and, therefore, incomplete. To turn God into an object that can be described is to make God a subset of Existence, when the Eternal is the Whole of Existence and beyond. The idea behind the Via Negativa is that God cannot be adequately conceptualized by the limited human intellect with attributes of a limited physical reality, and so God is best discovered through negation. In other words, God is all-encompassing, and therefore perceived as a sort of vibrant Absence, a sort of haunting Presence within the empty spaces of our perception...

...He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow...


That ache we universally feel, that absence can feel to the soul like an existential betrayal inherent within reality. Most of us reflexively turn from that feeling and run from it, endlessly distracting our awareness so we don't feel it so painfully. But, ultimately, that's not very effective, and it is never satisfying.

We put our hands in
[the empty space that is the wound in Christ's] side hoping to find
It warm."


Mystics encourage us to look deeper, to sit with that ache, to embrace it. Eventually we discover to our surprise that that terrible void is, in truth, filled with immense life and bliss, and that our very being flows from its spacious no-thing-ness. This is the truth of the Via Negativa.

==

Apologies about the unexpected hiatus in the poem emails. I have been recovering from an injury. Those of you who have been receiving the Poetry Chaikhana emails for a while may remember that several years ago I broke my ribs in a martial arts class. (One reader quipped that I should be "more artsy, less martial.") Well, a couple of weeks ago I reinjured my ribs. Nothing martial about it this time, however. I was playing with my dog, chasing him among some trees, when I took a bad step and tripped, falling hard on my side. I am fine, and the worst of the discomfort has passed, though I still notice it when I turn or bend at certain angles. The price paid for inhabiting an active body in a bumpy world.

Sending love to everyone! Take care.



Recommended Books: R. S. Thomas

For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics
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R. S. Thomas: Selected Poems
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R. S. Thomas (Everyman Poetry)
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R. S. Thomas: Collected Poems 1945-1990
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Via Negativa