Séamus Ahearne: ‘Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick; That he held right by the arms of the V: Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck; Of water, nervous, but professionally.’ The Diviner (Seamus Heaney).


There is something mysterious and delightful about Stephen’s Day. Boxing Day. The old phrase from the distant past comes back: It is a ‘Dies Non.’ In the usual hurly burly life of ministering there is very little time for reflection. Life gets busier and more challenging. Priesthood is more than a full-time job. And still much is left undone and has to be. So there is almost delirium with Stephen’s Day for some of us. ‘The Wren/The Wren the king of all birds’ is not the call anymore. It is the emptiness. The quietness. The nothingness. The space.

The notion of The Deserted Village comes to mind. Oliver Goldsmith wrote on the social reality of the village disappearing. His village was mythical or even a combination of villages. John Healy wrote‘No One Shouted Stop’ and also19 Acres’. There was something of the wilderness and desert in the morning for Stephen’s Day. The rain was talkative. The swans were out. The odd bird twittered. The occasional winter flower smiled as it woke up. The streets were totally deserted. Nothing was happening. It was delightful. And then there was no Mass; no callers; no emails; nothing and nobody. It is very special and quite lovely. Respite was occurring. But it also hinted at what was becoming the future in religious terms. Culturally, faith has been displaced. The wilderness beckons.


A N Wilson wrote in the London Times (Saturday 23rd) about ‘the mob who turn up for Christmas Mass.’ Wilson wondered about the sentimentalists who would appear once a year and what different reactions there would be, by the pastors and the regulars. Would they wish that ‘they’ might come more often or catch something or would ‘they’ resent these occasional drop-ins? All of this was interesting. He did provoke a flurry of responses by way of letters. Wilson said that the Church of England was founded on a fudge of not asking too many intrusive questions about what you believe. He sees attendees at Christmas Services as expressing deeply embedded pieties that are separate from devout Christian faith. I’m not sure!


Wilson then ambled onto Larkin’s observations (I rather like Larkin). In Church Going Philip Larkin wondered who would be the last person to seek out a Church building for what it was”. Among the possible last worshippers, he included the Christmas addict, counting on a whiff/Of gown-and-bands and organ pipes and myrrh.” Larkin had got off his bike and wandered in. He was probably slinking in and quite furtive. He was almost afraid of being seen. But something drove him in there. To recall a past. To imagine the future. To muse on what was being lost even if he couldn’t quite express fully, his own need, for the deeper verities. He was both happy to have the Church and its memories all for himself and yet fearful on what was being lost for many.


Many in the Church community agonise about those who don’t come, or those who come and don’t know what to do or when to stand or sit or kneel or whatever becomes the conventional demeanour for praying. (Some priests feel the need to tell people what to do….. Stand. Sit. Kneel.) Why not leave them alone and let them sit all the time? How often are we conflicted about the time we spend with preparation for Communion or Confirmation or Baptism or Funerals? Are we disappointed with the results and left concerned at not spending time at something else? But then surely numbers don’t matter.


We aren’t totally responsible for who comes, or those who don’t come, or what they believe, or don’t. Neither do we have to apologise forever for the mistakes of the past. If God is real. If God speaks. If faith is in our guts… then let the questions seep into the lives of people. They are responsible. We aren’t. They aren’t children. We are there: To help. To celebrate. To remind everyone that God is alive and well and matters. But we don’t have to impose or decry. We may be surprised if people can’t grasp a need for God, but we can do our little bit and let God do the rest. Why should we be different from all the grandparents we know – who see their young ones absent from Church; absent from marrying in church; absent from seeing any need for the God of the Church?


I go back to Wilson. I don’t think we are any longer overwhelmed with numbers coming for Christmas. That yearly visit has been reduced, as culturally the Community of Faith is no longer part of the everyday, or even the annual attraction or need. Larkin may be disappointed. And we are too. But the rapidly disappearing priests by sheer weight of years; the disappearing congregations for the same reason, will lead to more empty Churches and less money to maintain them. What will also disappear is the social work of ministry done in every Community, which is way beyond anything the professionals can do, or even can attempt to do. That is already becoming such a loss. All of this has happened elsewhere and previously. In France for example.


Our own time management is difficult. We spend so much time with Funerals that we have little energy or time left for the schools; little opportunity left for Home-Visits; Hospital-Visits; or for just being there in the hurts and mess of everyday life. That is a great loss. This may be more important than the low attendances. Life is changing. Some cry that it is time for the priests to stop doing so much that could be done by others (by the laity!) The reality is very different. There are no replacements for the disappearing stalwarts who did so much in the life of a church. So often now priests are doing more maintenance and more administration than they ever did previously, by way of necessity. And not because they are slow to relinquish such jobs. We have to create a very new structure model of church and of ministry. All the rigid clarity of the Church/Liturgical model will have to be rethought. Our Liturgies will have to be changed. Our Sacramental essentials have to be renewed not just with new words but with a totally different way of recognising and expressing such moments. We need artists and poets and musicians and singers to call out the beauty of faith. That seems to be a true understanding of a continuing incarnation.


Stephen’s Day is a real gift. We all need more of such days. Time to step aside from every moment being filled; from Masses shouting for attention; from schools challenging us. We have to declutter every aspect of Church life and our own way or mystique, on Priesthood and Sacrament. A New World In The Morning with Whittaker can set the scene. I was reading Seamus Heaney’s Letters today. Again it was a luxury to be able to ‘waste time usefully’ with my name sake (Seamus). I’m not sure of the reason for the publication. I found it intriguing to follow the evolution of Heaney’s life and poetry. The letters were very revelatory. However, I did ask myself what Heaney would have thought. He was very clear in stating that any invasion of the personal and the private was a form of robbery. I suppose the Letters do tell us much of the Community of literary friends that helped this man become the person he was. The country man. The ordinary man. Yet the artist of words. We need many Heaneys to help us in our new creation of Religion in our day. Stephen’s Day was great.

Seamus Ahearne osa

Stephen’s Day 2023.

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