His Doubt and Belief Drew Me to R.S. Thomas

I squeezed myself into this world; groped my way, in the words of R. S. Thomas, “up to the light,” believing in God.

Belief, you could say, is encoded in me. My parents and the line of parents stretching out behind them were believers. On my maternal grandmother’s family tree hangs a bishop: I have a hint of his nose, more than a hint of his willingness to cotton to unpopular theological ideas.

Once a year, my paternal grandparents took me to their fundamentalist campmeeting, hoping, I suspect, that it would vaccinate me against doubt. Uncertainties about the fundamentalist approach were aroused, however, by the boys who listened to the sermons, then sneaked off into the woods to masturbate. But it was the Bible-waving, altar-calling preachers themselves who awoke my lasting suspicion of fundamentalism: Were they making all that noise to convince themselves that they harbored no doubts? Why else did they protest too much?

College courses in geology, history, biology, and religion elicited doubts about the Bible, the church, theology, and God. The doubts that invaded my thinking did not, however, send my belief into exile. My head raised questions, followed by more questions, but my heart refused to accept the idea that something can come from nothing. In R. S. Thomas’s words: “From nothing / nothing comes. Behind everything — / something, somebody?”

Don’t tell me, I know: That sounds like the woman who insisted that planet earth stands on the back of an elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, she replied that it is elephants all the way down.

For me, it’s God all the way up, all the way down, and, quoting the title of one of R. S. Thomas’s books, between here and now.

Thomas, affirming his belief in God and acknowledging the darkness in which he carried out his explorations of I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14), riffed on a poem by John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In Thomas’s poem:

‘It is like a tree,’
the blind Indian cried
encountering the beast’s trunk.
‘Like a rope, I would say,’
cried another, discovering
its tail. I, though I am
not blind, feel my way
about God, exploring him
in darkness. Sometimes he is
a wind, carrying me off;
sometimes a fire devouring
me. Rarely, too rarely
he is as the scent
at the heart of a great flower
I lean over and fall
Into. But always he surrounds
me, . . .

Future blogs will deal at greater length with exploring God in darkness – Thomas’s twentieth-century take on Henry Vaughn’s seventeenth-century insight: “There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here / Say it is late and dusky, because they / See not all clear.”

For now, it’s enough to say that Thomas’s doubt and belief drew me to him and his poetry. He speaks to me . . . and for me . . . when he says:

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. . . .

Thomas also speaks to me . . . and for me . . . when he says:

It is alive. It is you,
God. Looking out I can see
no death. The earth moves, the
sea moves, the wind goes
on its exuberant
journeys. Many creatures
reflect you, the flowers
your colour, the tides the precision
of your calculations. There
is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
so small that your workmanship
is not revealed. I listen
and it is you speaking. . . .

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“. . . groping his way up to the light, . . .” – “Pain’s Climate,” The Echoes Return Slow, 2.

“From nothing / nothing comes.” – “The Promise,” No Truce with the Furies, 59.

“between here and now” – Between Here and Now.

“It was like a tree,” – “The Indians and the Elephant,” No Truce with the Furies, 48.

“Why no! I never thought other than,” – “Via Negative,” H’m, 16.

“It is alive. It is you,” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 51.

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