by Patrick Kavanagh
Having confessed, he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
Lie at the heart of the emotion, time
Has its own work to do. We must not anticipate
Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts. We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.
We must not touch the immortal material,
We must not daydream tomorrow’s judgement—
God must be allowed to surprise us.
We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer
By this anticipation. Let us lie down again
Deep in anonymous humility and God
May find us worthy material for His hand.
Editor’s commentary: Although Martin Luther first retained Confession as a sacrament along with Baptism and the Eucharist, he later settled on only the last two. Yet he considered confession essential to the Christian life. He objected to the medieval Roman Catholic doctrines that 1) required confession in order for absolution, or cleansing from sin; 2) required the believer’s spoken enumeration of particular venial and mortal sins; and 3) gave only a priest the authority to absolve sins, which usually involved a required penance. Luther countered that only God absolves sin, and since all believers, through baptism, are priests, they may confess directly to God or to one another, as well as to pastors. Humans cannot enumerate sins because many are unknown; instead, they should confess their wholesale sinfulness as inheritors of original sin. For Luther the crucial part was not the confession itself but the absolution—God’s complete erasure of sin, the total heart-cleansing which allows Christians to continue to live without guilt. He argued that believers will freely seek to confess because doing so will completely clean their consciences and allow them to live joyfully in God’s love.
In Kavanagh’s poem, the speaker narrates a Catholic believer exploring his spiritual state after having been to Confession with a priest. This believer does not feel complete absolution not because he cannot enumerate all his sins, but instead because the very act of presuming that one can step outside his own “immortal” soul and articulate its “material” failures seems to him a hubristic—and thus sinful—human act that belies contrition and shuts out God. The speaker shifts from “he” to “we” to include readers in his spiritual exploration. Perhaps Luther’s disavowal of the enumeration of sins would be some comfort here, but this poem’s believer goes much further, suggesting that the confessional act itself is problematic: we need to be an unself-conscious “nothing” so that God can surprise us. And he goes one step further, suggesting that even any presumption that God has absolved our sin, and thus our sense of security that we are saved is sinful, akin to Lucifer/Satan’s presumptuous sense of self in his rebellion against God. This speaker seems to suggest that a sense of assurance that God has absolved our sin through grace, Luther’s central principle, is problematic. Only if we are nothing, waiting “unconscious” and in “anonymous humility,” will God—perhaps—find a way to use us.
Patrick Kavanagh, who died in 1967, was an Irish journalist, poet, and novelist who is now one of Ireland’s best-loved poets. Early on, he published the collection Ploughman and Other Poems, notable for its realistic descriptions of Irish country life, his reaction against the romanticized versions then current. After a time in London, he settled in Dublin, but became disillusioned by the pretense of sophistication of urban intelligentsia and artists, who ridiculed him as "that Monaghan boy." Kavanagh wrote several semi-autobiographical novels and a long poem, The Great Hunger (1942), about the intense difficulties of rural life, which is considered his greatest work. As a journalist, he worked as a gossip columnist, a film critic, a writer for the Catholic journal The Standard, a monthly diarist, and a literary journalist; he eventually edited his own weekly journal. With his collection Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, he earned literary fame. His finest poems combine easy colloquial language, hard-edged realism, and highly skilled craft.
*This poem is reprinted from Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004), by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.