From the Tradition: The Bright Field

A former Lecturer in English Literature and University Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Tim McKenzie is Vicar of St Michael’s Anglican Church in Kelburn, Wellington. He is married to Mel McKenzie, and they have three children, Elliot, Jamie, and Grace

For my recent birthday, my children gifted me Francis Spufford’s novel, Light Perpetual. Early on, there’s an evocative description of a boy’s first trip to a football match. It’s Millwall v. Crystal Palace, 1949. Ben’s eyes roam delightedly over the spectacle of the thing—the crowd, the advertising hoardings, the London skyline. The actual game is almost incidental until

a burning mote of gold, motionless in the air. It shone as if a hole had been pierced through the world. He hasn’t noticed the goal.

On the bus home, Ben’s dad worries aloud that his son hasn’t enjoyed the experience as much as he’d hoped. He need not worry. “It was wonderful, Dad,” says Ben.

I recalled this incident when revisiting R. S. Thomas’s poem, “The Bright Field”. It too exults in the riches pouring into the world through the holes pierced into God’s creative abundance. And both, perhaps, celebrate:

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. 

The first biblical allusion in Thomas’s poem is to Jesus’s twin parables about the Kingdom in Matthew 13:44–46. In these parables, the riches of God’s Kingdom can’t be measured with human metrics. They are both freely available and worth more than we have to give.  It’s easy to see why Jesus regularly observes that Kingdom life comes easier to children than to calculating adults. In his naivety, Spufford’s character Ben sees what Thomas’s poem declares: that God’s riches are everywhere, available to those whose attention is not distracted by productivity and rush. To see them, it’s necessary that we become as little children.

R. S. Thomas (1913–2000) was among the foremost 20th Century poets to write consciously in the Christian tradition. His early poetry draws on observations of nature and pastoral experiences in rural Wales where he worked as an Anglican vicar all his adult life. From the 1970s onwards, his poetry became increasingly lean, focusing more on cosmic, metaphysical, and existential concerns. Often, it probes the difficulty of belief in God given the realities of suffering and human faith in technology. Against that backdrop, moments of epiphany and reassurance are hard won and are all the more significant for that.

“The Bright Field” comes from a 1975 collection, Laboratories of the Spirit. The apparent paradox of that title (do laboratories and Spirit mix?) indicates Thomas’s resolution to cultivate a spiritual life even in unfavourable conditions. The poem suggests that if we wish to keep our spiritual bearings, we need to slow down to remain connected with creation (the meandering lineation and unexpected line breaks of the poem itself embody just such a slowing down). Maintaining our spiritual bearings requires us to notice the beauty all around us rather than hurrying onwards to the elusive future promised by dominant narratives of technological progress. And it requires us to practice the discipline of remembering when we have encountered God’s abundance even in the simplest of gifts.

The practice of remembering is further evoked by a reference to Moses later in the poem. Moses calls Israel to this discipline throughout the Torah, and here the poem alludes to the foundational experience of Moses’s memory, his encounter with God through the burning bush: “It is the turning /aside like Moses to the miracle /of the lit bush.” In the past, I’ve felt that Moses’s experience is far too consequential, too significant, to stand comparison with our moments of illumination in the natural world. But it’s interesting to note that in Exodus 3, God doesn’t overwhelm Moses. Moses notices the bush and so turns aside (the phrase used in the King James Version) from his pastoral duties to go and inspect it. Only then does God speak to him.

The discipline of turning aside from pressing duties and professional responsibilities was codified for Israel in the practice of Sabbath. It’s been tempting for Christians across history to see Sabbath-keeping as a burden. And while Sabbath in the Torah does involve accepting limitations, the goal of Sabbath is clearly rest and restoration (Ex 20:11). Understood through a new covenant lens, Sabbath can only be an invitation to joy and delight. Observing God-given limits, even limits we chafe against, is the route to freedom. Walter Brueggemann titles his little book on the subject, Sabbath as Resistance. If we really want to resist the spirit of our age—if we’re serious about rejecting the idolatrous desires for success, status, and cultivated image—then Brueggemann says the Sabbath has to teach us to say “No” to the cultural tyranny of the now, the new and improved. When we practice Sabbath, we’re trusting that God will provide for us rather than trusting our own efforts or hankering after the shiny wares of the techno-culture. And, of course, God does provide; as the poem indicates, his riches are new every morning and can be harvested in every restorative shaft of sun, illuminating every bright field.

Back when I was a freshly-minted vicar, I made an effort to catch the pastors in my new neighbourhood for coffee. One proved hard to track down. It turned out he was on stress leave, burnt out from trying to arrest decline in a struggling church. It’s a sadly familiar story beyond the bright lights of the megachurch. As I looked at him with sadness over my Americano, I realised I was looking at my own future if I didn’t start to take Sabbath seriously. It was a good way to start ministry. I don’t always manage; ironically, I am writing this on my Sabbath. But God’s gift of time for simple rest, for reading, for walks—for delight, as John Mark Comer translates it—this is a gift I ignore at my cost.

Thomas’s poem ends by equating delight at the bright field with eternity—God’s future that never recedes but is instead eternally present. This metaphor is overreach if we don’t understand the role of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings anticipations of God’s future perpetually into our present. And since that’s so, the turning aside is towards the eternity that awaits us. Our practice of Sabbath is dress rehearsal for our ultimate future, for “the rest that remains for the people of God”. That quote is from Hebrews 4:9 where the writer uses Moses’s example to issue a warning. Plenty of people lacked the faith to obey Moses, he says, and so missed out on God’s rest. What if the risk for us is similar? If we lack the faith to trust the goodness of God’s limits and his provision of Sabbath, will we be ready when the ultimate future arrives? To put it bluntly: if I don’t welcome the Sabbath now, what chance will I have of enjoying heaven? The poem would suggest … not much.

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
the treasure in it. I realize 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, Collected Poems 1945–1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993), 302.

(Image: By Stas Kulesh, CC Zero)