On Prayer and Sin Eaters

A CNN journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time.

So she went to check it out. She went to the Western Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site.

She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.

"Pardon me, sir, I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. What's your name?

"Morris Feinberg," he replied.

"Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?"

"For about 60 years."

"60 years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?"

"I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims."

"I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop."

"I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults and to love their fellow man."

"I pray that politicians tell us the truth and put the interests of the people ahead of their own interests."

"How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?"

"Like I'm talking to a wall."


Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent is fast approaching and so it's an opportune time to be thinking of Sin and the vicissitudes of faith, prayer and doubt.

Sin-eaters were common functionaries at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century funerals in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. 

They would take unto themselves the sins of the dead by consuming bread and beer over the corpse. 

In addition to the feed, they charged a fee for this ritual scapegoating.

Image Celtic graves Ginny Dixon from here

Like undertakers, they were needed but not much appreciated, and not infrequently reviled because of their proximity to the dead and their miserable stipend. Their place in the ceremonial landscape of death put them at times at odds with the reverend clergy.
Source: Poetry (February 2011). 

One of my favourite writers is Thomas P.Lynch, a retired undertaker who hails from my birthplace in County Clare and these first three poems are his. 

The third poem, "He Posits Certain Mysteries " explicitly refers to the sin eaters, and Argyle is the name of a fictional "sin eater" who features in many of his poems.

Argyle on Knocknagaroon

By Thomas P. Lynch
Because he barely heard the voice of God
above the hum of other choristers—
batwing and bird-whistle, gathering thunder,
the hiss of tides retreating, children, cattle;
because he could not readily discern
the plan Whoever Is In Charge Here has,
he wondered about those who claimed to have
blessed assurances or certainty:
a One and Only Way and Truth and Life,
as if Whatever Breathes in Everything  
mightn’t speak in every wondrous tongue;
as if, of all creations, only one
made any sense. It made no sense to him.  
Hunger he understood, touch, desire.  
He knew the tenderness humans could do,
no less brutalities.  He knew the cold
morning, the broad meadow, the gold sunset.
One evening on the hill of Knocknagaroon,
the Atlantic on one side, the Shannon
on the other, the narrowing headlands
of the peninsula out behind him,
the broad green palm of Moveen before him,
it seemed he occupied the hand of God:
open, upturned, outstretched, uplifting him.
Source: Poetry (February 2011).
Image Knocknagaroon in County Clare Ireland

                                                                        Cappa magnum robe

He Considers Not the Lilies but Their Excellencies

By Thomas P. Lynch
Thin gruel, shallow graves, whiskey watered down,
the ne’er-do-well and good-for-nothing crowd
of cornerboys and gobshites were among
Argyle’s manifold perturbations.
Worse still, the episcopal vexations:
their excellencies, eminence and graces,
red-cassocked dandies and mitered wankers,
the croziered posers in their bishoprics
with their Easter duties and Peter’s pence,
their ledgers full of mortal, venial sins—
keepers of the till and tally, bankers
of indulgences and dispensations;
their bulls and bans and excommunications,
nothing but contumely and bamboozles.
For all their vestiture, rings and unctions,
preaching to bishops, like farting at skunks, was
nothing but a mug’s game to the sin-eater,
so in earshot of them mum is what he kept.
Still, he thought there might be something to it:
a life apart from this life where the souls
long dead and gone were neither dead nor gone.
Some days he felt so happily haunted,
by loving ghosts and gods upholding him.
Some days he felt entirely alone.

                                                          Painting : Curragh Men of Ireland by J.P.Rooney from here

He Posits Certain Mysteries

By Thomas P. Lynch
The body of the boy who took his flight
off the cliff at Kilcloher into the sea
was hauled up by curragh-men, out at first light
fishing mackerel in the estuary.
“No requiem or rosary” said the priest,
“nor consecrated ground for burial,”
as if the boy had flown outside the pale
of mercy or redemption or God’s love.  
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
quoth Argyle to the corpse’s people,
who heard in what he said a sort of riddle,
as if he meant their co-religionists
and not their sodden, sadly broken boy.
Either way, they took some comfort in it
and readied better than accustomed fare
of food and spirits; by their own reckoning:
the greater sin, the greater so the toll.
But Argyle refused their shilling coin
and helped them build a box and dig a grave.
“Your boy’s no profligate or prodigal,”
he said, “only a wounded pilgrim like us all.
What say his leaping was a leap of faith,
into his father’s beckoning embrace?”
They killed no fatted calf.  They filled the hole.
Source: Poetry (February 2011).

and finally......

Possible Answers To Prayer  
by Scott Cairns

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervour I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
 Scott Cairns, “Possible Answers to Prayer” from Philokalia: New and Selected Poems.
from The Poetry Foundation. 

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