Imre Kertész, the Hungarian writer who received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, was asked why he had a minister officiate at his second marriage. His answer was that “one doesn’t have to be a believer to be receptive to the wonders of life.”
R. S. Thomas was receptive to the wonders of life – a believer, too, but always hyphenating his belief with his doubt.
Thomas never closed his eyes to life as it is, often a trudge through pain. Never closed his mind to history, with its tales of sword-wielding believers. Never closed his ears to Bible stories that tell about God’s dastardly doings.
Some of Thomas’s poems paint the delightful landscape of nature:
. . . there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart. . . .
Other poems by Thomas paint the deformed landscape of nature:
Catrin lives in a nice place
Of bracken, a looking-glass
For the sea that not far off
Glitters. ‘You live in a nice place,
Catrin’. The eyes regard me
Unmoved; the wind fidgets
With her hair. Her tongue is a wren
Fluttering in the mouth’s cage.
Here is one whom life made,
Omitting an ingredient, . . .
In some people, life’s chef has omitted an ingredient. In others, ingredients have been added that are ticking time-bombs. So Thomas concludes his poem about Catrin by telling us what he sees:
. . . the golden landscape
Of nature, with the twisted creatures
Crossing it, each with his load.
But . . .
But what Thomas sees does not cause him to give up his belief in God.
He sees believers bearing responsibility for some of history’s most blood-thirsty atrocities; in particular, some of the believing “people of the book” – Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The gunmen who recently rampaged through a shopping mall in Nairobi took time out from killing for praying.
Thomas sees scientists at blackboards chalking out long equations that explain the world without recourse to a God as a working hypothesis.
Yet Thomas continues to be receptive to the wonders of life. He goes on believing in God. And he hyphenates life’s heavenly and hellish landscapes, the paintings of Monet and those of Bosch.
There’s no getting round it,
It’s a hell of a thing, he said, and looked grave
To prove it. What he said was
The truth. I would make different
Provision; for such flesh arrange
Exits down less fiery paths. But the God
We worship fashions the world
From such torment, and every creature
Decorates it with its tribute of blood.
Side by side with that poem in Pietà, which was published in 1966, is “In Church,” where, Thomas tells us:
. . . There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
Thomas looked up in wonder and believed in God. Looked around in anguish and was assailed by doubt. What to do?
Link doubt and belief. Tie them together. Hyphenate them.
And ride that hyphen through life, but always edging . . . slightly . . . towards belief.
Thomas believed . . .
. . . looking up
into invisible eyes shielded against love’s
glare, in the ubiquity of a vast concern.
Thomas continued to believe that at the heart of the universe there is a vast concern that we call Love, that we name God.
Here is the concluding stanza of “Waiting,” which was published in Thomas’s 1978 collection titled Frequencies, a slim volume that can be read as a handbook of doubting-belief – Thomas is addressing God:
I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
now, leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“there is movement” – “The View from the Window,” Poetry for Supper, 27.
“Catrin lives in a nice place” – “The Observer,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 11.
“There’s no getting round it” – “Ah!” Pietà, 45.
“There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà, 44.
“looking up” – “Perhaps,” Frequencies, 39.
“Young” – “Waiting,” Frequencies, 32.