R. S. Thomas: The Bright Field and the Pearl of Great Price

In his poem The Bright Field, R. S. Thomas (1913 – 2000) uses a series of overlapping images to convey something of the immediacy and elusiveness of those moments in life when Eternity breaks into our everyday experience. He begins with an experience of profound beauty – a transitory instant when the sun, resting at that singular angle, not too high and not too low, when it basks everything before it (in this case a small field) in a warm and golden lucidity – as it is moments of encounter with the graces of nature that most commonly bring us face to face with the transcendent. This glorious but accessible image is then used by Thomas to ask us to consider just how much significance such moments may actually have, and the haste with which we move on from them.

In such moments, we are called out and away from our lesser concerns, and taken out, momentarily, of the continuum of mundane activity we live in, enabled to leave behind the pressure of the future and the weight of the past. Yet we all too easily, having been refreshed by this, move on without reflection and return unchanged to the things of the world, ironically wishing soon after our return there that we could find a place of continual peace and spiritual nourishment in the world.  Such moments, whether they be aesthetic, intellectual, moral or spiritual (though the latter is present in all such moments to some degree) are pointers to that very place where we indeed can have our souls restored and find an unchanging source of inner peace.

Thomas moves thus from the image of the field illuminated by sunlight to the biblical images of the field wherein treasure is buried and of the pearl of great price; for it is that pearl, that treasure – God Himself, and life with Him – which the transportive moments in life are meant to lead us towards. Such moments can be as revelatory as Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush; not in the sense that they are equivalent in quality or degree of what is revealed, but that they can bring us out of ourselves and recall us to the ultimate reality that underlies all our earthly endeavours and in which we can alone find perpetual peace. What Thomas is saying, in essence, is that God can reveal Himself to us in and through all manner of things, and waits patiently for us to stop long enough to hear His voice.

At this time of Advent, when we try to cultivate a spirit of waiting and listening within us, it is good to remember that God is never far from us, and that when we do hear His voice, when the pearl of great price is made present to us in our everyday experience, we must give all that we have to possess it. This does not mean trying to remain in or preserve those moments when we feel close to God; such clutching after experiences will only lead to frustration, and mistake the pointer for what is pointed towards. What it means is that we must be ever ready to receive God when He reveals Himself to us, and that when He does, we are to receive His gift with gratitude, returning to the everyday events of our lives with a new perspective, knowing that God is always with us:

 

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it. I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the Miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

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