God in Winter

Now that Pope Francis has decided, it would seem, that only priests with significant pastoral experience will be appointed bishops – and thus effectively drop-kicking into touch the ambitions of theologians, exegetes, liturgists and other similar ‘experts’ – the status of the pastoral priest has been equivalently enhanced.
Francis has also placed a spotlight on the lived experience of Catholic parishioners, as can be seen in his efforts to access the thoughts of Catholics around the world in preparation for the October Synod, despite the efforts of Vatican apparatchiks to undermine the process by couching the questions in the ‘Lineamenta’¹ in impenetrable language. (What else might possibly explain such bizarre verbosity?)
All this means that reflection on the pastoral realities was never more necessary and that those, like poets and artists who can distill, forensically and sensitively, the hum of lived lives are to be unambiguously cherished. And those pious souls who live in a twilight zone in another age and cannot in T. S. Eliot’s phrase ‘bear much reality’ need to be shuffled to the sidelines.
S. Thomas, the priest-poet, opened up the lived experience of priesthood in the Welsh valleys and one of the best kept secrets of the Irish Church is that the priest-poet, Pádraig J. Daly, has for years performed a similar service. In a limpid, luminous style couched in simple, accessible language and presenting as little more than fragments, Daly’s poems penetrate to the core of reality, dissecting the human condition, finding rumours of the divine in everyday experiences and mining a seam that echoes the experience of priests and people in parishes in Ireland today.
I first came across Daly when I heard him on radio reading a poem about his father. I was stunned. It could, I remember feeling, have been written about my own father. Clearly both fathers had little in common but the words were so charged with feeling that the emotion resonated. It’s Daly’s great gift, making the personal universal. Other memory-poems, heartfelt but unsentimental, capture family incidents that are set into a background of warmth and of love.
In The Lost Dreamers, Daly towards the end of the twentieth century, placed the dilemma facing priests:
We began in bright certainty
Your will was a master plan
Lying open before us. Sunlight blessed us,
Fields of birds sang for us,
Rainfall was your kindness tangible.
But our dream was flawed;
And we hold it now,
Not in ecstasy but in dogged loyalty,
Waving our tattered flags after the war
Helping the wounded across the desert.
A contemporary of my own, Daly writes in simple, spare language, presenting through incidents that morph into reflections a road-map to help us discover and understand where we are. His words too capture the personal dilemmas priests face:
You have many acquaintances, few friends;
Besides your unreplying God you have no confidant.
Nevertheless you lift your hat to all. Old ladies
Especially will seek you out, sometimes a sinner
You are guest at many celebrations, a must at birth and death
Sometimes you wonder is this how God intended it.
These reflections were provoked by the arrival on my desk of a copy of Pádraig Daly’s new book of poems, God in Winter, published by Dedalus Press.
It’s vintage Daly, creating as he does clearances, to describe in simple words the world as so many of us know it to be, or to have been – once he’s said it. For instance, A Christmas Poem, captures the sadness of so many of our Christmas congregations paying due deference to a lost faith:
No longer able to believe
That the great Unknowable
Came among us as a child.
He finds a way,
This tinselly time of year,
To the crib and the singing.
In some kind of fealty
To those whose softness
Nourished his growing:
And, for a moment,
Dreams himself back
Into the sweetness.
And interspersed among the flashes of insight, are warm reflections sparked off by incidents in family life, part of a series of memory-poems, that chronicle his loved ones as they move through the seasons of life:
(For my father)
I wish you could see
Your great-grandchildren thrive,
Exult in the din of them together:
The falls, the scrapes, the ears,
The kissing-better.
You would glory in their innocent cheek,
Naive knowing,
Love for each and each overwhelming you!
Do yourself a favour and get your hands on God in Winter.
¹preparatory document

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One Comment

  1. Michael Maginn says:

    Brendan, thanks for pointing us towards God in Winter. Daly is a priest, poet and prophet, one of the greats of the Irish Church. Enjoyed your brief reflection very much. Daly maybe puts into words what many of us feel but are unable to express. With every good wish, Michael

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