Spir­its of Christ­mas

Sea­mus Heaney, re­luc­tant ag­nos­tic

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - ■ Dr Kevin Wil­liams is se­nior re­search fel­low at the Cen­tre for Eval­u­a­tion, Qual­ity and In­spec­tion, In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion, Dublin City Univer­sity KEVIN WIL­LIAMS

In an in­ter­view with John Haf­fenden in 1981, Sea­mus Heaney de­scribes reli­gion as “part of the tex­ture of grow­ing up” and says his “whole life was per­me­ated with it”. As he ex­plains in a ra­dio in­ter­view with John Quinn that was pub­lished in 1997, the habits of the house­hold and of the na­tion­al­ist pop­u­la­tion in North­ern Ire­land were “sat­u­rated in re­li­gious val­ues”. These val­ues con­trib­uted to those of his mother, he notes, and struck a pro­found chord with the “in­ner so­cial bond­ing of the Catholic com­mu­nity”. The re­li­gious sen­si­bil­ity in him.

Catholi­cism, how­ever, was only one strand in his spir­i­tual her­itage that he con­sid­ered at length in a short piece in The Fur­row in 1978. Strangely enough, there was noth­ing “specif­i­cally Chris­tian” about his en­vi­ron­ment, though he felt that the whole place was im­bued with a “sense of tran­scen­den­tal re­al­i­ties” and that these en­joyed “an ac­tive part” in his re­sponse to his home place. He per­ceived the land­scape as “sacra­men­tal, a sys­tem of signs that called au­to­mat­i­cally upon sys­tems of think­ing and feel­ing”. His whole en­vi­ron­ment of­fered “the foun­da­tion for a mar­vel­lous or mag­i­cal view of the world, a foun­da­tion that sus­tained a di­min­ished struc­ture of lore and su­per­sti­tion and half-pa­gan, half-Chris­tian thought and prac­tice”.

This foun­da­tion ex­tended to the flora of the place, be­cause much of this had a re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance. The word “reli­gion” means bind­ing to­gether and re­li­gious be­liefs served as a com­mu­nity glue. The pa­gan and Chris­tian were fused in this vi­sion of the world. A thorn tree was associated with the world of the fairies, but the ap­pear­ance of the Vir­gin Mary in this tree con­ferred on it a “new set of sub­lim­i­nal at­tributes”. Prac­tices such as bless­ing wa­ter at Easter, light­ing can­dles be­side the beds of the dy­ing, plac­ing can­dles in win­dows at Christ­mas, gen­u­flect­ing and mak­ing the sign of the cross count­less times were part of the fab­ric of his up­bring­ing. These con­ferred a sense of never feel­ing “alone in the uni­verse for a sec­ond” even as he “heard the clay hit the barefaced cof­fin”.

He be­lieved that the poet who comes from a Catholic tra­di­tion is for­tu­nate in hav­ing ac­cess to a fem­i­nine strain in reli­gion. His mother, like the women of the time, iden­ti­fied with the Vir­gin be­cause all en­dured the pain of child bear­ing. Her in­ter­ces­sion was in­voked by peo­ple in their trou­bles. As for his own sense of reli­gion, he found that prayer was “en­riched and nur­tured” through in­vo­ca­tion of the Vir­gin Mary. In an in­ter­view with Den­nis O’Driscoll, he de­scribes Catholi­cism as pro­vid­ing a “to­tally struc­tured read­ing of the mor­tal con­di­tion” that he never suc­ceeded in de­con­struct­ing. He felt that his “puny south Derry be­ing” ex­isted “within the great echo­ing acous­tic of a uni­verse of light and dark, death and ev­er­last­ing life, di­vine praises and prayers for the dead”.

In an­other in­ter­view in the Sun­day Tele­graph in 2001, he af­firms the value of a Catholic in­her­i­tance. A nov­el­ist might feel obliged to ad­dress the neg­a­tive au­thor­i­tar­ian as­pect of its legacy, whereas Catholi­cism of­fers the poet a world “a shim­mer” with pos­si­bil­i­ties and a sense of be­ing part of an en­counter with eter­nity where ev­ery thought and ac­tion are known to God.

Yet Heaney drifted away from the Catholic re­li­gious faith of his up­bring­ing, though in a non-dra­matic, low-key, al­most light-touch man­ner. This move­ment from the faith of his child­hood is de­scribed both in prose and in a poem en­ti­tled Like Ev­ery­body Else, from the Out

of This World se­quence. The prose ac­count, which pro­vides more de­tail than the po­etic ver­sion, can be found in an­other in­ter­view with O’Driscoll. Here he speaks of bow­ing his head dur­ing the con­se­cra­tion of the Mass and of lift­ing his eyes at the el­e­va­tion of the host and chal­ice. At the time, he be­lieved that tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ had taken place, though he ac­knowl­edged the pre­cise sta­tus of this be­lief was com­plex. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing the “mys­tery”, he re­turned to his place, gave thanks, and then “felt time start­ing up again”. He found the ex­pe­ri­ence “phe­nom­e­nally re­fresh­ing” and re­gret­ted that his faith was dis­ap­pear­ing.

His loss of faith was not ac­com­pa­nied by high drama or deep philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings, but, rather, it hap­pened “off­stage”. There were, as Pa­trick Ka­vanagh wrote: “(n)o mad hooves gal­lop­ing in the sky”. Yet the po­tency of the words of the liturgy re­tained a hold on his imag­i­na­tion and he was un­able to “dis­avow” their “tremor and draw”. In the poem he refers to them as “well wa­ter far down”. Un­able to make an “act of faith”, he ex­plains in Sta­tion Is­land that he trans­lated a poem of St John of the Cross to help his un­be­lief. The speaker of the poem ex­claims in its last lines “I am re­pin­ing for this liv­ing foun­tain/Within this bread of life I see it plain/al­though it is the night”.

Liv­ing with our myths

So, un­like James Joyce, Heaney never felt the need to rebel an­grily against the faith of his up­bring­ing. As he ex­plains to John Haf­fenden, he is im­pressed by the in­sights of an­thro­pol­o­gists who have taught us about “liv­ing with our myths”. In the Quinn in­ter­view, he won­ders if per­haps his qual­i­fied will­ing­ness to live with the myths of his up­bring­ing was rooted in the close re­la­tion­ship with his mother, whose “fierce spir­i­tual com­mit­ment” he ac­quired as though through a “process of os­mo­sis from her spirit”.

An­other rea­son for his wist­ful­ness about this loss of faith was the as­so­ci­a­tion of Catholi­cism with the Ir­ish cul­ture of his home place. In the won­der­ful med­i­ta­tion, Among School Chil­dren, he tells read­ers that this in­her­i­tance ran deeply counter to the “of­fi­cial Bri­tish cul­ture” of the Union­ist state. The state was an alien, colo­nial im­po­si­tion that “was at odds with the an­thro­po­log­i­cal cul­ture” of where he grew up. An ex­am­ple of the lat­ter, to be found in a lit­tle-known in­ter­view with grad­u­ate stu­dents in Trin­ity Col­lege in 1987, was learn­ing prayers through Ir­ish. This ac­tiv­ity was part of the “cul­tural philo­soph­i­cal co­her­ence” of the ed­u­ca­tion that he re­ceived, and which was “on the whole – Catholic, Gaelic, na­tion­al­ist”.

Here too Heaney re­flects on the con­nec­tion be­tween the Ir­ish lan­guage and Catholi­cism. The lan­guage, he ex­plains, marks “a con­fir­ma­tion of iden­tity, of some kind of com­mon piety within the na­tion and it re­lates stren­u­ously... to a sec­tar­ian vi­sion of the self in the North of Ire­land”. He ar­gues that “the Catholic dis­af­fected po­lit­i­cal part linked it­self to the vi­sion of the lost Ir­ish civil­i­sa­tion” and that Catholic schools pro­vide a link to this civil­i­sa­tion. Reli­gion and lan­guage are cap­il­lar­ies into an emo­tional and cul­tural in­her­i­tance. His sense of the pre­cious­ness of this legacy leads him to de­fend the role of sep­a­rate Catholic schools in North­ern Ire­land.

The re­in­forc­ing of Catholic iden­tity was then im­por­tant to Heaney, mak­ing of him a some­what re­luc­tant ag­nos­tic. Is it pos­si­ble for such shy scep­tics to join then in the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ­mas? My an­swer is that it is, es­pe­cially where Chris­tian­ity is given ex­pres­sion in forms more spa­cious than in the cold doc­tri­nal rigid­ity that has been con­demned by Pope Fran­cis him­self. These forms are to be found in the gen­er­ous, in­clu­sive, non-de­fen­sive open­ness of many clergy and re­li­gious.

The fol­low­ing is an in­ci­dent (I could re­count many more) that re­flects the ex­pan­sive re­li­gious at­ti­tude to Christ­mas that is com­pat­i­ble with the views ex­pressed by Heaney and which would make of the church a home place for ev­ery­one. At a Mass dur­ing Ad­vent in a lo­cal parish, the pri­est wel­comed parish­ioners, vis­i­tors from out­side the parish, vis­i­tors from other Chris­tian and non-Chris­tian faith tra­di­tions and vis­i­tors who did not be­lieve in God but who wanted to be part of the com­mu­nity’s cel­e­bra­tion. The church of many clergy is far from the in­sti­tu­tion of the sanc­ti­mo­nious bri­gade of mil­i­tant lay Catholics, with their nar­row-gauge ver­sion of the faith.

At Christ­mas, there­fore, the no­tion of God be­com­ing hu­man opens doors to imag­i­na­tive res­o­nances that are beyond all telling. Like Heaney’s po­etry, these res­o­nances prompt us to con­tem­plate pos­si­bil­i­ties where “the spirit flares” and where there is no need to “wa­ver/Into lan­guage” (from Squar­ings: Light­en­ings , in

See­ing Things). It is a time to “credit mar­vels” and a “(t)ime to be daz­zled and the heart to lighten” (from Foster­ling).


An Ir­ish Christ­mas, 1955; raised as a Catholic, Sea­mus Heaney, left, be­came ag­nos­tic, but never felt the need to rebel an­grily against the faith.

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