When Faith bears unpredictable fruit

When Faith bears unpredictable fruit Hozier
The View


There are billboards for Hozier’s new album, Wasteland, Baby!, all over the place. In a Guardian Question and Answer session the singer (Andrew Hozier-Byrne) revealed that he has Seamus Heaney’s last words tattooed on his arm. Seamus Heaney had texted ‘noli timere’ which means, “do not be afraid”, to his wife, Marie, shortly before he died.

Hozier’s love of the words comes from the poignancy of when they were written and the fact that Heaney conversed in Latin with his beloved wife.

The resonance of ‘noli timere’ obviously differs depending on how a person receives them. For Christians, they are words found in dozens of places in the Bible.

However, his wife Marie, the woman who knew and loved him best, has said they were simply words of comfort to her and had no deeper significance.

It would be wrong to try to paint Heaney as some kind of Christian believer given that he identified as agnostic. As his friend Msgr Brendan Devlin said so eloquently at Heaney’s funeral, we cannot try “to harness him in the ranks of the soldiers of Christ. How insufferably patronising that would be!”

Given his agnosticism, many were surprised at Heaney’s choice to have a requiem Mass but his wife Marie said that “for him, it gave to people a sense of transcendence, a sense of something beyond us even though you may not believe in it”.


Heaney himself, with typical wryness, described his own spiritual standing in a 2007 Open University interview.

“I grew up in a very religious household and I’ve a religious disposition but I also have done my best to secularise myself. And I find myself halfway between them. I mean, I don’t believe in the dogmas but I have an impulse towards the transcendent.”

Heaney has also said that he was suffused in religious imagery which fed his imagination, including the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which contains such evocative words as ‘tower of ivory’, ‘Ark of the Covenant’, ‘gate of heaven’ and ‘morning star’.

So his agnosticism might be described as not Catholic but not opposed.

In contrast, Hozier grew up in the Quaker tradition and has said that he finds faith absurd, but describing himself as an atheist is too final. In his most famous song, ‘Take Me to Church’, Hozier uses religious imagery to describe a relationship with a woman who demands to be worshipped. He says that he wrote it after a bad break-up.

In subsequent commentary, he says that the song represents everything life-denying about the Church, which stigmatises sexual relationships except in marriage. The music video made for the song depicts two Russian men who are tortured and abused by their community for their love.

So religious imagery is used first for an unhealthy relationship, then for what is seen as the awfulness of religious dogmas and finally, to condemn homophobia in Russia and elsewhere by laying it at the feet of churches.

Without suggesting Hozier is an artist of Heaney’s stature, the difference between the generations is stark. Heaney is willing to acknowledge his debt to Catholicism. For example, if it were not for the scholarship he received to St Columb’s in Derry, he would not have learned his beloved Latin.

However, Hozier also says that his favourite poem of Heaney’s is ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, a poem which describes the legend of how once when St Kevin was in prayer, a blackbird nested in his outstretched hand, and such was his reverence for life that he remained kneeling in prayer until the baby birds were fledged.

We now live in an Ireland where baby birds have far more protection than baby humans. A bird in the nest may not be disturbed on pain of legal sanction but a baby in the womb may be removed with the approval of the State. Hozier, of course, campaigned vociferously for Repeal of the Eighth.

Some great rupture has taken place between art and Faith. There are notable exceptions, such as Dony MacManus and his School of Sacred Art in Florence but for the most part, artists, writers and musicians are today often actively antagonistic towards the Christian moral code.

What are we to do? Borrow the older significance of Heaney’s last words and do not be afraid. Agnostics can be moved by an ancient legend about compassion and even young and successful singers rejecting Christian morality can still be moved by simplicity and beauty.

Sometimes it feels that like St Kevin, as Christians we are stretched between heaven and earth, condemned to try to do the impossible. But like St Kevin, if we are people of compassion, our faith tells us that will eventually bear fruit that we cannot predict and indeed, for which we can take little credit.