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Non-believer drawn by the sacred


Stepping Stones, interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'DriscollNobel prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney attends closely to life. The natural world reveals itself afresh to his gaze. And when tracing the contours of human experience, he can catch readers off-guard bringing to light unexpected moments of tenderness, discovery, or wonder.

For Heaney, reality matters: words give voice to the matter-at-hand. Having spent more than 50 years finding words for that which comes into view, his writing covers a great deal of territory: people, places and events that are well traversed in Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.

One theme that caught my attention in these interviews was that of the meaning and practice of faith. Heaney's reflections about his own journey of faith bring to light important aspects of a more general cultural shift in the West.

As a young, Catholic university student in late 1950s Belfast, Heaney three times made the penitential pilgrimage to Lough Derg, a sanctuary of St Patrick in County Donegal. He entered seriously into the ritual walk, the repetition of prayers, and the fast.

In retrospect he sees that it was the external challenge that held his attention back then: the walking unshod, the struggling to stay awake, and the fasting. 'You were necessarily concentrated on getting through it but not necessarily absorbed in sacred reverie,' he remembers.

Not that it was without its rewards: he was buoyed by the company of friends and on completion found the experience cathartic.

Through the '60s and '70s a change occurred. Catholic vocabulary and practices slipped from Heaney's view as he turned his attention at first to university life and later to a career in poetry, to marriage and a young family.

There was also, of course, the secular temper of the age: 'a general, generational assent to the proposition that God is dead'. He experienced as a loss the fading power of Catholic ritual and prayer in his life. Until then it had been a source of great refreshment.

Thirty or more years hence, he still does not make the leap of faith yet a renewed appreciation of the sacred pervades his work. To some degree this was a result of his immersion in the classics of Western culture, particularly Dante's Commedia, which re-awakened the depth of meaning in Catholic cosmology.

But the language of his Catholic past has found new power now. In the poem 'Out of This World', he traces the journey from his childhood immersion in ritual to the present, saying of his mature understanding:

And yet I cannot
disavow words like 'thanksgiving' or 'host'
or 'communion bread'. They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down.

What to make of Heaney's spiritual journey? It could easily be seen as a casualty of the so-called secularising effect of the '60s and '70s; as a loss of religious faith followed by the emergence of a more syncretistic spirituality.

But such a judgement misses the major transition. Heaney describes a shift from faith understood primarily as external adherence to ritual, to faith or the spiritual quest as having profound personal resonance. Even though he no longer sees himself as a believer, sacred words now 'have an undying/tremor and draw'. They have the capacity to shake the soul and beckon it forth. (Not that I wouldn't love Heaney to discover the full joy of Christian faith: I would, if he so discovered it.)

In what is regarded as a major work on the place of religion today, A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers an account of this turn to the personal. He sees early 19th Century Romanticism as a pivotal movement, with its emphasis on each person finding their own particular way of expressing their humanity.

He argues that since the 1960s the legacy of Romanticism has permeated popular culture in the West. As a result, religion has found a new place. In Taylor's words, 'The religious life or practice that I become part of ... must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.'

This intensely personal understanding of faith has great risks, particularly the subjectivist temptation to think that I determine what reality or even the divine is. It also presents the churches with the immense challenge of personally connecting with every believer and potential believer.

On balance, however, I think that the turn to the personal must be judged a step forward. Augustine's famous line, which he addresses to God, 'You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you', finds richer meaning in this context.

James McEvoyJames McEvoy teaches theology at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.

Topic tags: mcevoy, Dennis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Charles Taylor, Secular Age



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Existing comments

I am a fan of Heaney - I will get Stepping Stones - I am 70 and rarely attend Mass - I miss the Canon as it was, a quiet time to reflect and connect with God - now it is just a recitation of grade 3 level - I still have a breviary and in the quiet of home read the psalms - they are beautiful, thoughtful and allow me the quiet time to reflect - not Mass

margaret o'reilly | 12 March 2009  

The Mass is celebration by the whole community of Church of the mystery of redemption. It needs to be complemented by what Margaret O'Reilly calls 'quiet time to reflect'. Neither is always easy.

Margaret McDonald | 12 March 2009  

How can it be
that we assume
that there has ever been
anything less, anything other,
than levels of faith
and belief -
the learned responses of childhood.
the idealistic or rebellious visions of youth.
the losses and recoveries of faith along the tumultuous journey of life.
the maturing, deepening, ever-so-personal experience of an intimate God?

The difference now,
as I see it,
is that often enough,
in this instant age
we want to pick the fruits of years of experience from a tree that has no roots.

Pirrial Clift | 16 March 2009  

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