Sharing the Quarantine of the Leper’s Soul | The Poems of R. S. Thomas

RSThomasSepia.jpgWhile we were talking about his theological college days, R. S. Thomas expressed distaste for a certain quality, if that’s the right word, of sainthood.

He mentioned that the head of the college read, during one of their retreat days, about Saint Francis of Assisi pushing his fingers into the food of lepers.

“Unreality!” – Thomas’s tone of voice suggested he’d just tasted something unpalatable.

Thirty years later, he published “St Julian and the Leper”:

Though all ran from him, he did not
Run, but awaited
Him with his arms
Out, his ears stopped
To his bell, his alarmed
Crying. He lay down
With him there, sharing his sores’
Stench, the quarantine
Of his soul; . . .

RS never became a man who stretched his arms out wide in welcome. But as he ministered among the hill farmers of Central Wales, he shared the lives of men and women who had been quarantined by the petite bourgeoisie. All because the clothes of these people were “sour with years of sweat / And animal contact.”

At first, Thomas also shied away from sharing the quarantine imposed upon these men and women by those who purchased the products of their labors in odorless urban shops.

Later, however, he urged himself and his readers, to “Consider this man in the field beneath, / Gaitered with mud”:

Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
That rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give
To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?
From the standpoint of education or caste or creed
Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to hear God’s choir
Scatter their praises? Don’t be taken in
By stinking garments or an aimless grin;
He also is human, . . .

One reason for the greatness of Thomas’s poetry is his willingness to share the quarantine of contemporary lepers. For example, when our conversation turned to America, he always asked about the Native Americans. He thought the “Red Indians” (his term) were like the Welsh: Both were treated as lepers.

The Europeans who invaded North America supposed they deserved the land more than the native inhabitants did, and they thought their religion superior to the spirituality attuned to nature of the Native American tribes.

The English invaders of Wales forgot that Celtic peoples had lived in the British Isles long before the Anglo-Saxon progenitors of the English arrived, and they assumed Latin Christianity with its aura of law courts was superior to Celtic Christianity with its deep roots in God’s creation.

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

“Though all ran from him, he did not” – “St. Julian and the Leper,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 12.

“sour with years of sweat” – “A Peasant,” Son at the Year’s Turning, 21.

“Consider this man in the field beneath” – “Affinity,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 25.

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