The Deus Absconditus of R.S. Thomas

by Kim on November 16, 2006

Time - and not a moment too soon! - to move this blog on from my Garden of Peed-in out into the world of poetry - though we’ll stick with the Bedouin, our nomadic deity who is always on the move. As R.S. Thomas put it:

. . . He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) was a Welsh priest and poet. Everyone has heard of Dylan Thomas, but the Swansea sot was not fit to untie the shoes of his Cardiff namesake, who in my view was one of the greatest poets - and certainly one of the top two or three “religious” poets - in the twentieth century. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature; a cantankerous Welsh nationalist, I would love to have heard his acceptance speech! Above all, Thomas was - in the title of a book by the great Welsh Wittgensteinian philosopher D.Z. Phillips (who died in August) - the “Poet of the Hidden God”.

Thomas writes in the tradition of apophatic theology, the theology of the deus absconditus, the God of the burning bush and desert wind who blows hot and singes - cauterizes - the human spirit. But his verse does not demonstrate the rather trivial truth that language is inherently unable to grasp God. On the contrary, it is an expression of prayer and praise in language. Simone Weil observed that “the very reason why God has decided to hide himself is that we might have an idea of what he is like”. What Thomas does is to translate idea into image. He demonstrates (in Phillips’ words) that “to say that God makes a difference to the world by virtue of his absence from it, is not to fail to talk of the reality of God, but to show how talk of such a reality gets a hold on human life.”

But let a few example of Thomas’ verse do the talking.

Never known as anything
but an absence, I dare not name him
as God. . .
. . . We never catch
him at work, but can only say,
coming suddenly upon an amendment,
that here he had been. . .

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply, It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
(”The Absence”)

. . . the higher
one ascends, the poorer the visibility

. . . 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.

. . . I have no faith
that to put a name to
a thing is to bring it
before one. I am a seeker
in time for that which is
beyond time, that is everywhere
and nowhere; no more before
than after, yet always
about to be; whose duration is
of the mind, but free as
Bergson would say of the mind’s
degradation of the eternal.

Face to face? Ah, no
God; such language falsifies
the relation. Nor side by side,
nor near you, nor anywhere
in time and space.

No piracy, but there is a plank
to walk over seventy thousand fathoms,
as Kierkegaard would say, and far out
from the land. I have abandoned
my theories, the easier certainties
of belief. There are no handrails to grasp.
. . . Is there a place
here for the spirit? Is there time
on this brief platform for anything
other than the mind’s failure to explain itself?

. . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
(”The Answer”)

If you haven’t read the poetry of R.S. Thomas, you haven’t lived - or, better, you haven’t died.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Eugene McKinnon 11.16.06 at 10:36 pm

It seems we have more comments about our toilet habits than our reading habits. What have we become?


Eugene McKinnon


blonde 11.19.06 at 12:40 am

A noble laureate? absolutely he was. i very much like the (deliberate?) typo!


Kim 11.19.06 at 12:59 am

Hi Blonde. Hope you’re good.

Well spotted, but I must admit to accidental rather than deliberate typo -now corrected.


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