The car’s headlights pushed aside the November darkness as my wife and I drove to Llanfairynghornwy, where R. S. Thomas lived. Occasionally, we switched on the overhead light to check the map he’d drawn for us. Pottery and school? Yes. Turn right. Chapel with spire? There. Another right turn. Two cottages on the left? Spotted. And someone waving an electric torch.
Because Thomas banned outside lights, he used the torch to show me where to park and to light Nancy’s footsteps and mine as we walked to his door.
Thomas fled from the urban light pollution that blurs our view of the stars. “All night,” he writes,
. . . I am at
a window not too small
to be frame to the stars
that are no further off
than the city lights
I have rejected. . . .
We know, of course, that it takes darkness to make starlight visible, but often we fail to create a link between this knowledge and our customary associations with darkness: loneliness, fear of getting mugged, insomnia, three o’clock bladder-alarms, and nightmares of not knowing something important –
Which is that frightening word “ignorance.”
But the darkness of ignorance is, occasionally, an unknowing that is to be welcomed; in particular, by people who feel they must shed light wherever they go, who dote on having a ready answer to every question, who take pride in offering a solution to every problem.
Montaigne knew much about many things, especially human things; in particular, himself. Yet one of his mantras was: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.
Frequently, I suspect, Montaigne did know. He could have blurted out an answer to almost every question; he even could have delivered a mini-lecture. But he knew that he’d discover more about himself and his interlocutors, if he said, I don’t know.
It’s frightening to say those three words. For our self-esteem is threatened when we are, or seem to be, unknowing, ignorant – in the dark.
Yet darkness, as Thomas sees it, is where we delve into God – where we feel our “way / about God, exploring him / in darkness.”
I quoted those words in my March 5th blog titled “His Doubt and Belief Drew Me to R. S. Thomas,” and I promised to say more. Here’s my first “more.”
The quoted poem is from “The Indians and the Elephant,” in which a blind person feels the elephant’s trunk and decides that an elephant is like a tree. Another moves his hand up and down the elephant’s tail and concludes that an elephant is comparable to a rope.
To which Thomas responds, saying: “I, though I am / not blind, feel my / way about God, exploring him / in darkness.”
What did Thomas discover when he explored God in darkness?
Thomas learned that his intellect was beside the point, when the point was God.
We cannot assemble our fragmentary understandings of God, thereby composing a comprehensive definition of God. Thomas assures us that “The mind’s tools had / no power convincingly to put [God] / together.”
Rather, we explore God in the darkness of unknowing. We experience God’s presence in the dark night of our inability to comprehend God.
Thomas lets us listen in as he tells God:
. . . At night, if I waken,
there are the sleepless conurbations
of the stars. The darkness
is the deepening shadow
of your presence; . . .
In another poem, Thomas says to God:
I close my eyes.
The darkness implies your presence,
the shadow of your steep mind
on my world. . . .
We cannot climb the sheer cliff of God’s mind. But in the darkness of our unknowing, we can experience God’s presence as reassuring, comforting; perhaps, even as loving.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog
“All night I am at” – “At the end,” No Truce with the Furies, 42.
“I, though I am” – “The Indians and the Elephant,” No Truce with the Furies, 48.
“The mind’s tools had” – “Perhaps,” Frequencies, 39.
“At night, if I waken” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 51.
“I close my eyes” – “Shadows,” Frequencies, 25.