Monday, 6 May 2013

‘The poet as theologian, the theologian as poet’ … a theologian’s engagement with John F Deane

The strand at Dugort on the north coast of Achill Island … it may have given the name to Louis MacNeice’s poem, ‘The Strand,’ one of the poems known as “MacNeice’s Achill Poems” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I am particularly pleased to have been asked to engage with John F Deane’s poetry this morning. As I mentioned on Inishbiggle yesterday morning [Sunday 5 May 2013], John and I share ancestral roots in Bunclody, Co Wexford. But we were both students too in Kimmage Manor – although we were there at different times, and had very different experiences. And John’s brother, the late Father Declan Deane, was the tutor for my Belfast placement when I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the mid-1980s.

I was deeply moved by the combination of spirituality and brotherly love in John’s tribute to Declan in his poem, ‘Brother’, written after Declan died on 12 December 2010:

God surrounds, the way the universe surrounds,
impels, as the universe impels – seasons,
fall and spring, cancer, volcano, song;
and there you were, too soon, almost prostrate

though I believe your Christ, eyes bright with gladness,
was visible to you, there, just out beyond
the Eucalyptus, your awkward, demanding, loved
Jesus, companion in the dread, the laughter.


But to return to pleasure, it is an additional pleasure to be here, because, for many years, Achill was one of my favourite places to retreat to in search of quiet and solitude. At the time, there were no mobile phones, not even a dial telephone; Achill was the perfect place to find time and space to think, to be creative and to write.

In teaching theology, I constantly ask students to engage both with the text, the Biblical text, as it presents itself, rather than the way translators traditionally present it, and to engage their theology with the arts.

Sadly, too much theology is presented as philosophical narrative and discourse, or as liturgy and church history. But history recalls other ways of doing theology: Bach saw himself as a theologian working through music. We cannot understand liturgical developments in the course of Anglican history without understanding the work of composers such as John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, John Marbeck, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and so on, and more modern composers such as John Tavener and Paul Spicer.

Many of our images of the Bible and of Biblical events and figures are shaped by painters and sculptors: think of Michelangelo’s David, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Caravaggio’s The Taking of the Christ, or how Rembrandt’s choice of sitters from among the Jewish community in Amsterdam has shaped our imaging of people in the Old Testament.

Modern writers in fiction such as Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox are having a major impact on Anglican theology today.

Movies such The Night of the Iguana, Richard Curtis’s many movies, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, and even television comedies such as The Vicar of Dibley offer valuable critiques of how the Church and theologians do theology.

So, by the arts, I mean a very wide range of cultural understandings and transmission. And as a response to my uncomfortable feeling that too much theology is presented as philosophical narrative and discourse, or as liturgy and as church history that descends into hagiography, I turn to poetry and the work of poets.

It is impossible to understand the Anglican Reformation without engaging with poets like George Herbert, John Milton, John Donne and Henry Vaughan; it is impossible to understand Anglican theology today without wrestling with the poetry of TS Eliot and RS Thomas and seeing their work as theology-as-poetry, poetry-as-theology.

My desire to embrace the poet as theologian and to urge the theologian to walk hand-in-hand with the poet is rooted in my personal experience long before beginning to study theology. I constantly turn back to a life-defining, narrative-shaping, self-moulding existentialist moment in Saint John’s, Lichfield, that has made me the Anglican I am today, the priest I am today, the person I am today.

That experience of the light and the love of God is with me every day. Sometimes I compare that living moment with the feelings that inspired TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us


Or I compare it with the sentiments expressed by John Betjeman at the end of his poem ‘The Conversion of St Paul’:

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.


This morning, I want us in particular to engage with the poetry of John F Deane, and to ask us to play in our minds and in our hearts with the ways poetry can be theology and theology can be poetry.

The Bible as poetry, poetry in the Bible

The poetry of the Old Testament includes not only the Psalms but many parts of Isaiah and other books, while the poetry of the New Testament is often lost in translation.

Poetry is an integral part of Biblical literature from the very moment we start reading the Bible. The Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15: 1-21), celebrating the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, may the oldest example of Hebrew poetry, dating perhaps from the 12th century BC. Other early poetic works in the Old Testament include the Song of Deborah (Judges 5); the Song of the Bow or David’s lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan (II Samuel 1: 27-27), and the Burden of Nineveh (Nahum 1: 10 to 3: 19).

At least one-third of the Old Testament is written in poetry, including (apart from short prose sections) Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. Large portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Minor Prophets are also poetic in form and content.

Only seven books in the Old Testament – Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi – appear to be without poetic content.

Poetic elements such as assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, which we identify with modern poetry, are rare in Hebrew poetry. Instead, the essential formal characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which the content of one line is repeated, contrasted, or advanced by the content of the next. We then hear a rhythm that is characterised by thought arrangement rather than by word arrangement or rhyme.

In synonymous parallelism, a parallel segment repeats an idea found in the previous segment. With this technique, a kind of paraphrase is involved: line two restates the same thought found in line one, by using equivalent expressions. Examples of synonymous parallelism are found in Genesis 4: 23-24:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.


Or listen to these verses in Psalm 2: 4:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.


Or again in Psalm 51: 2-3:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.


Another and well-known example of synonymous parallelism is found in Isaiah 2: 4 and Micah 4: 3:

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;


In antithetic parallelism, the thought of the first line is made clearer by contrast or by the opposition expressed in the second line. Examples are found in Psalm 1: 6:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish


Or in Psalm 34: 10:

The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.


And again in Proverbs 14: 20-21:

The poor are disliked even by their neighbours,
but the rich have many friends.
Those who despise their neighbours are sinners,
but happy are those who are kind to the poor.


Another poetic form in the Old Testament is the alphabetical acrostic, a form used often in the Psalms (see Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 for examples).

In the alphabetical psalms, the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next with the second, and so on, until all the letters of the alphabet are used. Psalm 119, for example, has 22 groups of eight verses each. The number of groups equals the number of letters in the alphabet. In the original Hebrew text, the first letter of each verse in a group is the letter of the alphabet that corresponds numerically to the group.

However, as with all poetry, many of the subtleties of Hebrew poetry, such as puns, word plays and allusions, are almost impossible to translatable.

The Bible is full of numerous figures of speech, such as metaphors and similes. These figures of speech are not literal but poetic symbolism for God.

For example, we have poetic simile in Deuteronomy 32: 11-12, where Moses describes God’s care of Israel in the wilderness:

As an eagle stirs up its nest,
and hovers over its young,
as it spreads its wings, takes them up,
and bears them aloft on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him …


In Psalm 18: 2, the psalmist metaphorically describes God by saying:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge;
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold


Poetry in the New Testament:

The typesetters’ decision to present much of the New Testament as narrative discourse has left us with little poetry in the New Testament compared with the Old Testament.

But there are poetic hymns throughout the New Testament, and two of the best-known examples of poetry in the Gospels are the accounts of the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5: 3-10; Luke 6: 20-26).

Saint Luke’s Gospel has several poems which we continue to use as poems or songs in the form of liturgical canticles:

● The Song of Mary, or Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55);
● The Prophecy of Zechariah, known as Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79);
● The Song of the Heavenly Host, Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2: 14);
● The Song of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32), which inspired TS Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon.’

There are many examples of parallelism in the original Greek of the New Testament, such as the synonymous parallelism we find in Matthew 7: 6:

Μὴ δῶτε τὸ ἅγιον τοῖς κυσίν,
μηδὲ βάλητε τοὺς μαργαρίτας ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν χοίρων,

Do not give what is holy to the dogs;
And do not cast your pearls before swine.


We find antithetic parallelism in Matthew 8: 20:

Αἱ ἀλώπεκες φωλεοὺς ἔχουσιν
καὶ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνώσεις,
ὁ δὲ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἔχει ποῦ τὴν κεφαλὴν κλίνῃ.

Foxes have holes,
and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.


An example of synthetic parallelism is found in John 6: 32-33:

οὐ Μωϋσῆς δέδωκεν ὑμῖν τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ,
ἀλλ' ὁ πατήρ μου δίδωσιν ὑμῖν τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ τὸν ἀληθινόν:
ὁ γὰρ ἄρτος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν ὁ καταβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ
καὶ ζωὴν διδοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ.

it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven,
but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.


Luke 21: 8-19 is a passage filled with drama, poetry, and humour. But if you read these verses in a Bible translation that simply runs clause after clause, sentence after sentence, you miss the poetry and the metre, the rhythm and the beat.

One of the difficulties in translating poems and songs is that people have different ideas about where the rhyme and the repetition should come.

Imagine rhyming slang. Then stone upon stone in verse 6: λίθος ἐπὶ λίθῳ (líthos epi lítho) forms a rhyming group with famines and plagues in verse 11: λιμοὶ καὶ λοιμοὶ (limoí kai loimoí). So this passage has Jesus telling the people who are admiring the stones in the Temple that they are bringing upon themselves – that they are wishing for themselves – famines and plagues. Be wary of what you wish for.

Or imagine metrical emphasis:

Do not be deceived (verse 8): μὴ πλανηθῆτε (mé planethete)

Do not follow (verse 8): μὴ πορευθῆτε (mé porefthete)

Do not be frightened (verse 9): μὴ πτοηθῆτε (mé ptoithete)

Do not prepare, or do not rehearse (verse 14): μὴ προμελετᾶν (mé promeletán)

Do not perish (verse 18): μὴ ἀπόληται (mé apólitai)

The repetitious mee-pee sound is like a bump-bump, thump-thump, dramatic beating out that could so easily be set to music, like a Yiannis Ritsos poem waiting to be set to music by Mikis Theodorakis. Indeed, poetry and song are part and parcel of apocalyptic literature.

Those who listen are being asked to make a decisive choice for Christ. There is a hidden Ἐγώ εἰμι (Egó eimi) saying in this passage in verse 8 of the type normally associated with Christ’s self-description in Saint John’s Gospel.

The Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-18) is Greek mystical poetry of the highest quality

The Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-18) is Greek mystical poetry of the highest quality. This poem introduces all the key words and concepts of the Fourth Gospel. It has a chiastic symmetrical pattern commonly found in classical Greek literature such as the epic poetry of the Odyssey and the Iliad. In a chiastic poem, the first element corresponds to the last, the second element to the second to last, and so on until only the middle element remains, and it is the middle element (verses 12-13) that is being stressed by the author:

But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man,
but born of God.


Indeed, if I am ever asked to write a book on poetry in the Greek New Testament, I know it would be on poetry in the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine Letters and the Book of Revelation.

This does not distract me from the fact that the Pauline writings give us several poetic passages, including:

● The lyrical celebration of God’s everlasting love (Romans 8: 31-39);
● Saint Paul’s hymn to love (I Corinthians 13);
● The hymn on the triumph of the resurrection (I Cor. 15: 51-58), which in part inspired the Easter Anthems;
● His hymn on Christ’s humility and exaltation (Philippians 2: 5-11).

An example of passion in Saint Paul’s poetry comes when we read in II Corinthians 4: 8-12:

We are afflicted in every way, yet not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh.
So death is at work in us,
but life in you.


The poetic quality of this is easy to see when we break up the original Greek text:

ἐν παντὶ θλιβόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐ στενοχωρούμενοι,
ἀπορούμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐξαπορούμενοι,
διωκόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐγκαταλειπόμενοι,
καταβαλλόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἀπολλύμενοι,
πάντοτε τὴν νέκρωσιν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματι περιφέροντες,
ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν φανερωθῇ.
ἀεὶ γὰρ ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες, εἰς θάνατον παραδιδόμεθα διὰ Ἰησοῦν,
ἵνα καὶ ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν.
ὥστε ὁ θάνατος ἐν ἡμῖν ἐνεργεῖται,
ἡ δὲ ζωὴ ἐν ὑμῖν.

But once again, the translators and the typesetters have rendered this as narrative prose, and we lose the poetic quality of yet another passage.

When Philippians 2: 5-11 is rendered in hymn form, the text changes from being doctrinal to being liturgical and poetic, a celebration of God’s wondrous work instead of an explanation of it:

τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ
ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν
ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν
μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος:

καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος
ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος
μέχρι θανάτου,

θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν
καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα
τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα,

ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ
πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ
ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων,

καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται
ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς
εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and become obedient
to the point of death –

even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Poetry in liturgy

From the earliest times, poetry, and short rhythmic stanzas (troparia) in particular, formed part of the liturgy of the church. The first Eucharistic texts are poetic, and later poems in classical metre and style were composed by Patristic writers from Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus to Sophronius of Jerusalem.

The Nicene Creed is best understood and is best used in liturgy as a Canticle, a poem of praise to all we believe God to be. The Nicene Creed, in its original Greek, opens:

Πιστεύω είς ενα Θεόν,
Πατέρα, παντοκράτορα,
ποιητήν ουρανού καί γής,
ορατών τε πάντων καί αοράτων.

The Greek term used here in the Nicene Creed for “Maker” is ποιητήν (poietén) – a cognate of our word “poet.” If we turn back to the beginning, to Genesis 1 – God is creating the world, is “poet-ing” the world. Poetry is an expression of our participation in, partnership with, God’s creation. If Liturgy is our participation and our invitation to the creation and the new creation, in all its fulfilment, then good liturgy must be poetic in structure and rhythm, and we lost that sense of sacramental poetry at the Reformation, either through the emphasis on the dramatic and the musical at the expense of the poetic after Trent, or the stripping away of both the dramatic and the musical as well as the poetic after Geneva.

In the 19th century, the first great collections of Anglican hymns drew on Anglican poetry. Christina Rossetti and John Keble, for example, were first poets rather than hymn writers, and Percy Dearmer’s great contributions to liturgy and hymnody included commissioning Vaughan Williams, including giving him the task of adapting the poetry of George Herbert for the English Hymnal.

In all our churches in the late 20th century, we were impoverished through the fashion for both second-rate hymns and second-rate liturgy, because we had lost the sense of the sacramental in both poetry and liturgy, and in society at large.

We had second-rate if not bad liturgy in the Alternative Service Book (1980) of the Church of England and the Alternative Prayer Book (1984) of the Church of Ireland. In both, we lost the language of the Book of Common Prayer which was poetic and which echoed the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. When the editors and the typesetters laid both books out as narrative prose, the liturgical words lost their dramatic and poetic impact as they were read in deadpan ways.

In Common Worship (2000) in the Church of England and the 2004 Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland, we have restored the poetic layout and presentation of the words of the liturgy, but too often our priests continue to read the liturgy as boring narrative prose.

Bad hymn-writing – popular but trite – gathered momentum at the same time as the liturgy was being dumbed down. We lost a sense of the poetic in both liturgy and hymn-singing at the same time. The loss of the sense of the sacramental in secular society is paralleled at the end of the 20th century by the loss of the transcendent and the sense of mystery that are most beautifully conveyed poetically in both liturgy and hymnody.

No wonder the American Catholic writer Russell Shaw writes that the loss of sacramentality is the fundamental challenge facing both liturgy and poetry today.

Poetry as theology on Achill

Achill Island ... a view at Achill Sound (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Last year [4 February 2012], The Irish Times asked me to review David Fitzpatrick’s new biography of Louise MacNeice’s father, ‘Solitary and Wild’: Frederick MacNeice and the Salvation of Ireland.

Having gone to Sherborne, an English public school, Louis MacNeice felt he had become detached from his family and his country, so in his autobiographical poem ‘Carrickfergus’ he recalled:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;


Yet Bishop MacNeice often brought his family to Achill on holidays, and the poet returned time and again to this island, particularly in the 1940s, so that Peter McDonald has labelled his 1948 volume, Holes in the Sky, as “MacNeice’s Achill Poems.” These poems include ‘Littoral,’ ‘The Strand,’ ‘Last before America,’ ‘Under the Mountain’ and ‘No More Sea.’

In these poems, the landscape of Achill, its mountains, sea and shoreline – including “these contours of Slievemore / Menaun and Croaghaun and the bogs between” – function as a topography for metaphysical inquiry, and MacNeice bridges poetry and theology with his questions about our transitory place on this planet.

In ‘The Strand’ – named, perhaps, after Dugort, for they were staying at the Old Rectory in Dugort, climbed Slievemore and dined in the Slievemore Hotel – we find the figure of MacNeice’s father implies a more solid relationship with the environment and with religious faith than that enjoyed by the poet. Nevertheless, the poem perceives both figures within a ceaseless fluctuation that erases marks of the human body and mind:

It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore

And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections — and no sign

Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.


Rocky cliffs on the south coast of Achill Island … ‘and the sea battering the coast / in its huge compulsion – seems as nothing’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As a poet, John F Deane writes on the relevance of Christianity today, and his meditations on Christianity and spirituality are the themes running through his latest collection, Snow falling on Chestnut Hill: New & Selected Poems (Carcanet: 2012).

In The Works of Love: incarnation, ecology and poetry (Dublin: Columba Press, 2010), which is introduced by Professor Enda McDonagh, John F Deane offers us a study of poetry in the context of religious faith. In 40 short essays, he looks at major poets in the religious tradition, from the Psalms, Saint Patrick’s Breastplate and the Deer’s Cry, through the early Anglo-Saxon poets, the poets of the Reformation era, including the Jesuit Robert Southwell and the Anglican George Herbert, the Caroline and Civil War poets Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, to more recent poets including Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Here too, from Ireland, are Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, Patrick Kavanagh and the Augustinian poet and priest Pádraig Daly, who “moves from the innocence of instinctive praise through the desolation of near despair, back through a sense of real redemption into a hope, through the incarnation, of ultimate salvation.”

But we are introduced also to Augustine of Hippo, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Saint John of the Cross, the painter Edvard Munch, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Rowan Williams as poets, to Tolstoy, Gogol and Pushkin, and to the English theologians Margaret Barker, a Methodist, and Elizabeth Jennings, a Roman Catholic.

While George Herbert and others are familiar to many Anglican readers, I imagine they are largely unknown to many Roman Catholic readers. As John recalls from his schooldays with the Jesuits in Limerick: “There were no poems by George Herbert on any course in Mungret College … Indeed, during my five years of struggle in that institution, I gathered no care for, or true awareness of poetry.”

He has overcome all this in a masterly yet tender way, and now he introduces us through these poets and their poetry to his own redemptive account of his life. Vignettes scattered through the essays or chapters draw on childhood memories from Saint Patrick’s Day and Corpus Christi processions on Achill Island or climbing Croagh Patrick, to a searing recollection of being cruelly beaten at school.

It is particularly moving to read his accounts of burying his father in Bunclody, Co Wexford, and of how his wife Barbara died in hospital two days before Christmas:

But it is I who have loved you,
have known the deepest secrets of your grace;
I take the golden ring from your finger,
I kiss the bride –

and they close the heavy doors against me
of that silent, vast, cathedral.


“By taking back the ring from her finger I felt that I was not letting God have the satisfaction of taking her from me, that I was still the one to care for her, that she was mine, as the sacrament of matrimony had stated. The truth is, I was lost, lost to faith, lost to myself. Lost, for the moment, to God.”

He revisits his mother’s grave in Bunclody, “a soft-toned town, to retire to,” and is reminded of

… the rising recurrent sorrow of the merely
human before loss, its unacceptability, its disdain.


I was surprised, then, that in that collection of essays on poets, love and sacrament, there are only passing references to John Donne and TS Eliot. Yet, this is a book not just about poets and poetry, but about love and sacrament. And poetry and theology find truth when they return constantly to our experiences of and the revelations to us of love and in sacrament. For, as Enda McDonagh says in his introduction, “poets and poetry play a serious … [and] a revealing and redemptive role in the divine economy of creation-redemption.”

To close: Love, creation, liturgy, spirituality, humanity, suffering, redemption, Achill … they are brought together in John’s poem ‘Acolyte.’ Reflecting on George Herbert, and then on meeting a poor suffering child and her father on the island of Gotland in Sweden, he tells of his days serving Mass on Achill Island – was that here in Bunacurry Church? [JFD: Yes.] One morning, the priest dropped a Host. Against all his training, John instinctively picked up the Host, put it in his mouth and swallowed it.

“It was a moment of awareness of how whole world is at one with Christ through the Eucharist, how this is a cleansing and forgiving Sacrament, and thus how it heals all the ills of humankind and of the universe! Oh dear, what a huge concept to try and convey in a short poem!” he says in his self-deprecating way. But this is what it is all about:

Acolyte (John F Deane)

The wilderness of this night – the summer trees
ripped and letting fall their still green leaves,
and the sea battering the coast
in its huge compulsion – seems as nothing

to the midnight chime from the black tower,
reiterating that all this tumult
is but the bones of Jesus in their incarnation.
I have flown today unto the island,

our small plane tossed like jetsam on the clouds.
I watched the girl, her mutilated brain,
the father urging, how her body rocked
in unmanageable distress, her fingers

bruising a half-forgotten doll; hers, too,
the Jesus body, the Jesus bones. Once
in early morning, the congregation
was an old woman coughing against echoes

and a fly frantic against the high window;
the words the priest used were spoken out as if
they were frangible crystal: hoc – est – enim –
The Host was a sunrise out of liver-spotted hands

and I tinkled the bell with a tiny gladness;
the woman’s tongue was ripped, her chin,
where I held the paten, had a growth of hairs;
her breath was fetid and the Host balanced

a moment, and fell. Acolyte I gathered
up the Deity, the perfect white of the bread
tinged where her tongue had tipped it – the
necessary God, the beautiful, the patience.

I swallowed it, taking within me
Godhead and congregation, the long obedience
of the earth’s bones, and the hopeless urge
to lay my hands in solace on the world.


Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). This lecture in Bunacurry School, Achill Island, on Monday 6 May 2013 was part of the programme for the Ninth Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend on Achill Island (3 to 6 May 2013). It was originally scheduled on the programme for Sunday afternoon, 5 May 2013.

No comments: