If you've been sucked into the twenty-four hour news cycle lately, or ever, it might seem that fear and hopelessness are our only options. Particularly with the recent Syrian conflict moving towards any number of horrific conclusions, we are told in no uncertain terms: you should be afraid.
However, there was an interruption of the media's ceaseless, fear-mongering palaver with the recent passing of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. At first blush, it might seem an oddity to take time to reflect upon one man's life and work while so many around the world die in anonymity. But it's not really an either/or situation. In fact, the death of a man who had the audacity to write poems, at times in the face of war, highlights why our war-weary world today still needs its prophets.
I do not mean to downplay the reality of fear in war. We love life and the intrusion of death should rightfully shake us. But for Christians, the nearness of death is nothing new; indeed, the "valley of the shadow of death" looms at the forefront of our psyches.
In his 1939 sermon "Learning in War-Time", C.S. Lewis, who saw active combat in WWI and lived through WWII, argued that war is not some incongruity in the pattern of progress, as many would have us believe. No. War is simply a manifestation, albeit an awful one, of the permanent reality of our bent world this side of the fall and this side of glory. Therefore, Lewis argued, we should learn, paint, sing, build, and, yes, even write poetry if we're called to the trenches, since in a certain light we're always already there.
Perhaps Lewis's is not such a groundbreaking truth, and perhaps it's really not unique to Christians either. But I agree with Samuel Johnson: "people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed." And one of the tragedies of the loss of Seamus Heaney is that the world lost a man who liked to remind us of basic truths in a beautiful way; a man who could write poetry in the midst of (and often because of) conflict; and a man whose poetry held up the mirror to our unflattering selves while projecting light towards a better future.
In Heaney's own words, he "set the darkness echoing" like that first creative word (or logos) of Christ at creation, of which all subsequent creation is a derivative act.
Heaney's poetry, by reaching back into ancient myth and up towards transcendent truths, reminded us what the future might look like. For instance, from the much quoted "Cure of Troy":
"History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme
So hope for a great sea change
On the far side of revenge
Believe in miracles"
Yet on several occasions Heaney rejected the idea that poets could make the world a better place. Indeed, the poet-prophet Jeremiah could not change the path upon which his fellow Israelites walked. In a more recent context, the volumes of Goethe found amidst Nazi officers were a startling reminder of the failure of the late Victorian dreamers like Matthew Arnold who believed that humanizing poiema might replace religion and rid the world of war. The world we live in, despite our best poetry, still bears witness to war and rumours of war.
In a way, the passing of Heaney was the passing of a prophet. Now Heaney was quite skeptical of those who ascribed to poets more power and influence than was reasonable, so I don't want to throw around the word prophet too lightly. But in her fantastic study Scripture, Culture, Agriculture, Ellen Davis defines the prophet as one who "instruct[s] our weak religious imagination by visual enhancement; they enable us to see the present moment of history in divine perspective." Heaney's prophetic voice, then, gifted us with carefully weighted words that placed his particular experiences into larger forms of meaning.
In his final words—a text message sent to his wife only minutes before he passed into new life—Heaney encouraged his wife with a Latin translation of the angels' words to the shepherds: "Noli Timere" (be not afraid). The poet who "set the darkness echoing" used his last words to remind his wife (and us) of the hope-filled entrance of the Word into the world (the logos into the cosmos).
And if Heaney's words as a poet have had any power, it is not because they are unique to his experience, it is because they have resonated with the words spoken by the one John called the Word: the one who said that even though heaven and earth shall pass away, His words will not.