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Breaking of the silence

20 December 2013

Mark Oakley enjoys an R. S. Thomas study 


Leaving the Reason Torn: Re-thinking cross and resurrection through R. S. Thomas
Alison Goodlad
Shoving Leopard £12.95
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WHEN a friend of Matthew Arnold heard that the Victorian poet had died, he is said to have commented: "Poor old Arnold. He won't like God." In the same wry spirit, Wynn Thomas, one of the most perceptive interpreters of R. S. Thomas, noted that it was easy to understand why the Almighty put off calling Thomas home for as long as possible: "he knew he would face cross-examination to all eternity."

Many priest-poets have had audacious relationships with God both in life and on paper. With George Herbert, you sense that he is questioning a friend in whose love he is, at the end of the day, reassuringly secure. Reading John Donne feels more precarious: his salvation lies partly in his own hands. R. S. Thomas, on the other hand, looks God in the eye, and, positioned somewhere between devotion and dereliction, lets the relationship break the silence from time to time.

Alison Goodlad has written a short study of how God lets the relationship break the silence, too. Using Thomas's poetry, she explores the themes of death and resurrection as found in the poems, and brings them into a creative conversation with the Bible as well as with theologians, poets, and novelists she finds astute, such as Brueggemann, Blake, and Brontë. She recognises that the cross of Christ is pivotal to Thomas's work, but that we shouldn't go to him for help in neatly understanding it; rather, he takes us deeper into the disruption and disorientation of it all.

Goodlad also argues the case that Thomas is "a poet of the resurrection, too". Thomas, she writes, "will suddenly disarm us with words of tenderness, vision and utter breathtaking beauty that turn us around to see things quite differently in the newness of the resurrection morning". Resurrection here, however, is not an easy resolution to dark days. It is part of the continual dynamic of disorientation and new orientation which creates an imagination, and human sensibili-ties, capable of discerning God, not an idol-substitute.

A Googlesque world of quick information has forgotten that it should be difficult, even dangerous, to talk about God. R. S. Thomas is a necessary counterpoint. The mystery of God, finding its natural expression in the death and resurrection of Jesus, does indeed leave our reason torn. Goodlad is grateful to the poet for opening up room for honestly confused but faithful responses to God's love.

What we long for most eludes us. We wait to be grasped by the one beyond our reach. "If religion is not about providing answers," she says, "but enabling us to live creatively with the questions, then R. S. Thomas has indeed offered us true religion."

She writes accessibly and with insight. A little more confidence in her own perceptions and less reliance on the quotations of others will make her next books, and I hope there will be some, even more immediate and alive.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

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