The following is the homily for the funeral Mass of the Irish poet John Montague, celebrated on Wednesday, December 14, 2016 at Newman University Church in Dublin.
Whenever a child of God claimed by Christ at his baptism dies, we the Christian faithful turn to the one who died for us to greet us in our sorrow, to intercede for us with the Father, and to strengthen us in hope. The scriptures, the liturgy, the sacraments, the communion that we share shape us and reshape us, even as we are shaken and forlorn at the loss of one who is dear to us and was dear to so many.
This faith that enables us to look past darkness to light, even if now only dimly, is the faith in which John Montague was formed. The core of that faith is simple: If we have died with Christ in baptism, we have hope to live with Christ in eternity. But the living of that faith, the knowing of that faith, the embodying of that faith—this is the work of a lifetime. And though he was not known as a “religious” poet, we may say that John’s life and work indeed reflect the faith and the hope of one formed and called by Christ to bring light to those in darkness just as surely as Christ himself did.
Such training as I have in life is theological, not literary. But I’ll do my best here to speak of Christ in speaking of John, and of John in speaking of Christ.
I recently watched a video of John reciting some of his poetry at Claregalway Castle in July of last year. The first thing one noticed about him was the infectious joy of his smile, a joy that overwhelmed his face, submerging even his bright eyes in the totality of its conviction. But the glint in those eyes as he read, as he paused, as he gathered us into his words and his voice, into his very seeing and saying of the world he saw and spoke, that glint betrayed a wisdom and a knowing that came from the country and the land as much as from his deep and wide learning.
Let me permit John to speak:
A feel of warmth in this place.
In winter air, a scent of harvest.
No form of prayer is needed,
When by sudden grace attended.
Naturally, we fall from grace.
Mere humans, we forget what light
Led us, lonely, to this place.
As Kevin Whelan has observed, this poem “occupies the shared space that poetry and religion occupy—mystery, grace and transcendence.” Gathered as we are in church, we immediately recognize how church, its scripture, its traditions shaped John’s language and vision. “Blessing” announces to us that, keenly aware of the frailty and failing of the human, John was not content to dwell upon the down and the dark, any more than he was keen to deny it. Rather, remarkable observer that he was, he was determined to find those moments of light—chosen light, we may say with him—that can escape us in our everyday observing, in our own tendency to dwell in the dark.
Philip Larkin famously asked in “Church Going” what people in faithless times would even come into churches for. He writes of the church visited in the poem:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.
John’s “Blessing” is far less skeptical, far more hopeful, though every bit as wise about the human condition: We are here to remember “what light / Led us, lonely, to this place.”
To dwell with John’s poems even for a little while is to see how he is constantly looking for light, observing light, speaking light, and bringing light to his readers and listeners. And though very often it is literal light, it is also the wisdom of the poet who helps us to understand more deeply what it is to be human, just as our Lord himself took flesh to do. And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.
John Montague’s searching for light in darkness, his helping us to find it, helps us even now as we struggle to answer the obverse of that ancient philosopher’s question—today, why is there nothing rather than something? We have turned to Matthew, dark Matthew’s gospel that is set from the start on the cross, a mature gospel for a mature faith, like John’s faith. Matthew grasped that the joy of the resurrection could only be fully grasped by one who had meditated upon the despair of the crucifixion. Today’s gospel so perfectly captures the profoundly human anguish of our Lord, his sense of abandonment, of being bereft. And yet it captures also that so graceful was his generous acceptance of injustice for our sake that a pagan soldier could not help but observe: Surely this man was the Son of God!
John Montague came by his mature faith honestly: Sent back to his family’s Ireland from the Brooklyn of his birth, enduring separation and a simple life in the complex North, he married in his works the intimately human and the broadly historical with a seamlessness that few have achieved. Upon John’s passing, Seanus Deane observed:
John Montague regarded Patrick Kavanagh as the last voice of an Ireland dominated by Yeats, the final unstable echo of a country half-in-love with its own provincialism. The new country inaugurated in Montague's own work would, instead, be cosmopolitan and yet deeply rooted in the past. We remember Montague as a wonderful lyric poet who produced poems that will be long remembered, all of them sharpened by a sense of loss that is both personal and cultural.
We must observe as well that John accomplished all he did as a man of letters while being a man of life: a devoted husband to Elizabeth, an inspiring and beloved father to Sibyl and Oonagh, and a friend, confidant, colleague, and fellow fisherman to many. As one who lived life to the full, he was able to embody the mature faith required to wrestle with high doctrine in a challenging poem like “In my Grandfather’s Mansion”—or “Grandfather God,” in which he struggles with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth:
I will not accept this exception.
The woman is blameless as the strangeness
She bears. And every ‘burning babe’
Falls through a broken hymen.
The divine and the human are interwoven:
Behold Jesus, a carpenter’s son.
This is not the angry rant of an ex-Catholic, but a wrestling with God in the tradition of Jacob, of John the Baptist wondering in his prison cell of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?,” and of our Lord himself in the Garden of Gethsemane: Father, let this cup pass…
And the word became flesh and dwelt among us. We recall Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us—and we ponder what that word has meant. On that I give John the last word, which we may see as a commentary on today’s Gospel:
I saw a tiny Christ
caper on the cross
silent as a salamander
writhing in fire
or a soldier triumphant
when the battle’s lost;
wine bursts from
his body’s grapeskin:
‘The suffering you see
is our daily mystery,
so follow my body
as it sings mutely
(a lantern, a ladder,
a window, a pathway)
of pain calcined away
in a dance of ecstasy.’
William Dailey, C.S.C., is director of the Notre Dame–Newman Centre for Faith and Reason.