Thank God for Seamus Heaney

Aug 30th, 2013 | By | Category: Ministry

Seamus Heaney helped me through many difficult moments. I never met him, never spoke to him, the nearest I ever came to him was sitting in a Dublin restaurant, but there were times when his writing gave voice to thoughts that otherwise could find no words.

On a cold day five years ago I went to join friends on the first anniversary of their stillborn child. Heaney provided words for the moment and that evening I wrote about the experience.

“Is that it, then? God has nothing else to say to people. Revelation ended nineteen centuries ago?”

Of course, the correct answer was, “Yes”, wasn’t it? Christians believe that all that needs to be said, has been said in the Bible, don’t they?

I hedged. Curates aren’t allowed to go off on directions of their own; or they didn’t used to be.

Was he right to be annoyed at my failure to agree with him that their might be divine inspiration in the work of Shakespeare, or in the work of many other writers? Probably.

Looking back twenty years, perhaps the answer would still be “Yes and “No”. Scripture is complete in the pages of the Bible, we believe, but inspiration continues. Even the most conservative of Christians would acknowledge that there was inspiration in the writing of the great hymns; and, even if they are not from a hymn singing tradition, they would acknowledge that there was inspiration in the work of those who translated the Bible into their own language.

But what about writing that is not Scripture, that is not even overtly “religious”? The Church of Ireland became uneasy at the introduction into wedding services of material that was not from the pages of the Bible and introduced a rule barring the use of such readings. Even at funerals, anyone other than the clergy who wishes to speak is meant to do so at the beginning of the service; as though lay people are not as capable of being “spiritual” as the clergy.

The position taken by the church has led to the opening of a gulf between what is approved by professional “religious” people and what is popular amongst lay people. On one hand there is the official material, Scripture and, sometimes very dry, prayers and liturgies; on the other hand there is an increasing amount of sickly, sentimental nonsense. (One of the worst popular poems includes a line which says, “I was not there, I did not die”; hearing it for the first time, I thought, “I was there. He did die.”).

Is God not to be found in the space in between official church words and verses inside condolence cards? Is there not inspired writing that comes from outside the official books, but has substance and weight of its own?

Searching for a reflective piece to include with prayers on the first anniversary of the death of a stillborn child, I found Seamus Heaney’s Elegy for a Stillborn Child, one of the most moving pieces of pastoral reflection I have read.

Your mother walks light as an empty creel
Unlearning the intimate nudge and pull
Your trussed-up weight of seed-flesh and bone-curd
Had insisted on. That evicted world
Contracts round its history, its scar.
Doomsday struck when your collapsed sphere
Extinguished itself in our atmosphere,
Your mother heavy with the lightness in her.

For six months you stayed cartographer
Charting my friend from husband towards father
He guessed a globe behind your steady mound.
Then the pole fell, shooting star, into the ground.

On lonely journeys I think of it all,
Birth of death, exhumation for burial,
A wreath of small clothes, a memorial pram,
And parents reaching for a phantom limb.
I drive by remote control on this bare road
Under a drizzling sky, a circling rock.
Past mountain fields, full to the brim with cloud,
White waves riding home on a wintry lough.

Standing at a graveside in a country churchyard in a bitter December wind, with stinging raindrops coming north from Wicklow mountains, the words of Heaney capture the desolation of the moment; its contradictions and its despair. Heaney’s eye for nature finds a landscape that shares with him the bleakness of grief.

Is Seamus Heaney a religious writer? No.

Is Seamus Heaney an inspired writer? Yes.

Perhaps my friend would have accepted such an answer.

Connemara Road

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  1. Can’t say I’m very familiar with his work generally, but these lines of Heney’s do indeed bring back to mind the bleakness of that wintry day in a Co Wicklow churchyard.

  2. I encountered him few times. Once at Westminster Abbey – I was always struck by a gentleness about him – though firm with it.
    In the obits one writer pinpointed the core (a core?) of his work – resilience, endurance, carrying on in the teeth of whatever sadness is thrown your way. Very comforting.

  3. I read ‘Stepping Stones’ last year – there seemed an unrelenting integrity in his personality.

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