Thomas pointed out the leper window I’m seeing as we walked around the medieval Church of Saint Michael. Nearby, in the hills surrounding the village of Llanfihangel-y-pennant, there was a leper colony in the Middle Ages, and, according to tradition, the window allowed lepers to view services without actually entering the church.
I imagine Thomas standing at today’s equivalent of that window – a poet-priest who is not fully inside the sanctuary of belief, a poet-priest who is not fully outside in the world of doubt.
With this image in mind, it’s natural to assume that Thomas-the-priest is the believer, that Thomas-the-poet is the doubter.
As a priest, Thomas had been trained to uphold in his century the centuries-old tradition of Christian belief. As a poet, he responded to the nudges of the Muse, and the Muse is nothing if not up to date. And the world of Thomas’s Muse, the world of the second two-thirds of the twentieth century, was a world infected with doubt.
So we’d expect, wouldn’t we, that Thomas’s belief would be sustained by looking into the church through the leper window, while his belief would be sapped by standing outside. And to a certain extent that is true.
But more true, I think, is the way Thomas experienced God in the world of nature and experienced doubt in the realm of the church.
Looking into the Bible through the leper window, Thomas was appalled by the bloodthirsty God depicted in some of the Black Book’s passages, the God who orders genocide, who countenances slavery.
Some of Thomas’s poems read like modern Bible stories, even beginning with “And God said”:
And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And patience. . . .
. . . All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. . . .
“That’s not my God!” you say.
It is, however, one of the ways that God is depicted in the Bible. All Thomas has done is write a parody-poem.
I think that Thomas wrote Bible parodies to help believers understand why many people experience doubt, not belief, when they look into the church and the Bible.
Nevertheless, as he said repeatedly, Thomas himself always believed in God – even though his belief was often deadened by the Bible’s stories and the rigid, often lifeless structures of the church.
What kept Thomas’s faith green was nature and the openness of the natural world to experiences of transcendence. He prayed:
Deliver me from the long drought
of the mind. Let leaves
from the deciduous Cross
fall on us, washing
us clean, turning our autumn
to gold by the affluence of their fountain.
Thomas found God in the daily things of the world outside the church:
. . . as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.
But it was only when his mind ceded its insistent right to rule, that Thomas experienced God’s presence in the natural world.
A moor was, for him, like a church:
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.
For R. S. Thomas, the life of the spirit was a matter of standing at the leper window and speaking the name “God,” and then
. . .waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival.
Quotes used in this blog:
“neither inside nor outside” – “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.
“And God said, I will build a church here” – “The Island,” H’m, 20.
“Deliver me from the long drought” – “The Prayer,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 10.
“as form in sculpture is the prisoner” – “Emerging,” Frequencies, 41.
“I entered it on soft foot” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.
“waiting, / somewhere between faith and doubt” – “Waiting,” Frequencies, 32.