The answer to my title question is: By being who I am.
It’s well known that R. S. Thomas used sour wine to dress his comments about England and the English. And when English-speakers showed up at his door – reporters, perhaps — he spoke Welsh to keep them at bay.
I do not speak Welsh, and my stammering assaults on Llŷn elicited efforts from Thomas, patient ones, to help me pronounce the name of his much-loved peninsula.
So why did Thomas come out of hiding for me?
Thomas may have decided to do so, because I’m an American. Perhaps McEllhenney, my Scots-Irish surname, helped. Whatever made the difference, he responded positively to my second letter.
He agreed to meet me at a B&B on the Llŷn peninsula in August of 1992. During our conversation, I did not flaunt but also made no effort to hide the things I thought we had in common. That, I think, is the portion of truth underlying Richard Holloway’s comment about me.
Holloway, the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, wrote this endorsement for the back cover of my book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry: McEllhenney’s “gift for friendship clearly warmed the flinty heart of the Welshman and coaxed him out of hiding.”
“Gift for friendship”: that’s an aged wine that pleases the nose, but is not to be gulped down.
I’m not a natural schmoozer, so I work at friendship by learning a lot about the other person and then by nudging points of contact into what I say.
Thomas was a priest of the Church in Wales: I’m an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. He served forty years in parish ministry: so did I. His ‘call’ was prosaic, not poetic: mine, too.
No blinding light struck me down on the Lancaster road. My pastor asked me, Sunday after Sunday, “Have you decided to be a minister?” He thought I had “gifts” for ministry, and the more I thought about it, I was inclined to agree. So when a high school essay called for writing about some career, I selected the ministry, and ended the essay by saying “That’s why I’ve chosen the ordained ministry.”
Thomas tells us that his mother broached the idea that he should be a priest of the Church in Wales. “So,” he writes, “when she saw that her son had no strong objection to the idea of being a candidate for Holy Orders she secretly rejoiced and persuaded her husband to agree to the idea. And the son accepted that he would have to start learning Greek . . . .”
Thomas, when he and I were talking in November of 1994, characterized his call to the priesthood by quoting Jesus’s words about the kingdom of heaven being “like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).
Thomas was a hyphenated species of fish: “I was trained to be a priest,” he continued, “I wanted to be a poet.” A poet-priest.
I nodded: I was trained to be a pastor, I wanted to be a pastor-theological thinker-writer.
That point of contact helped me coax Thomas “out of hiding.”
It also helped that I’d been reading Thomas’s poems for twenty years. So I could slip quotes into our conversations.
Which is what I did in the course of an over-dinner conversation. Thomas remarked that “interest in poetry was waning and poetry would disappear.” Responding, I said, “Why so fast, mortal?” He managed a mere hint of a smile of recognition.
Two decades before that exchange, Thomas wrote a poem in which he declared religion dead:
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; . . .
……….Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
God gets the last word:
………. But a voice sounds
In my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? . . .
………………… You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
That poem is titled “The Moon in Lleyn” – yes, not Llŷn; Thomas Anglicized the Welsh spelling, and the poem appeared in a book published by Macmillan, a quintessentially English publishing house in London.
Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“So when she saw” – “No-One,” Autobiographies, 35.
“The last quarter of the moon” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.