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Robert Burns Lives!
A Sermon By Professor Gerard Carruthers


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Today we’ll talk about sermons and church life and a refreshing contribution to our website by Gerry Carruthers. I’ve read countless sermons in my life and listened to more than I care to remember. Same goes for Robert Burns who has had so many books written about him that various scholars think the majority of the books on Burns didn’t deserve to be written, much less printed.

One story told long ago reminds us of ministers who would put the cart before the mule. One such pastor had gone to visit one of his parishioners and, as he stood by her hospital bed, he said in a high-pitched voice but with deep authority, “I hope you don’t let this keep you away from our prayer meeting tonight”, as the mother lovingly holds in her arms the wee baby delivered just a few hours before. Burns could have written a great story about him!

I read somewhere that the secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible. Thus, Gerry has met the criteria for an excellent sermon!

If you cannot or do not enjoy Professor Carruthers’ sermon below, there is the possibility there is something wrong with you. Here is one guy’s sermon I would chase up to the church house to listen to. Maybe it should be named “Tap Roots for Tall Souls”. (FRS: 4.2.15)

A Sermon...
By Professor Gerard Carruthers
Dr. Carruthers before speaking at the Burns Club of Atlanta in November 2, 2011
Dr. Carruthers before speaking at the Burns Club of Atlanta in November 2, 2011

Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow,
In commemoration of Robert Burns, 23rd January 2015, St Michael’s Kirk, Dumfries

Robert Burns is a poet for 21st century Scotland and the world. And I say this precisely because of what we might call his cultural and religious sensibilities. The big irony in attempting, as so many have done, to pin down or even claim the essential Burns, the authentic Burns, is that Burns himself saw authenticity coming in all shapes and sizes. No more so than when it came to religion. We hear much about Burns of the kirk satires where he lambasts ‘fanatical’ Calvinists. Well there is also the Burns who celebrates ‘extreme’ Calvinists. Around 1795 the poet writes about the 17th century Covenanters, those austere, heroic folk who refused to allow the king or anyone else to tell them how to worship. Those men and women who were persecuted for their faith, hunted down by government troops in the hollows of hills, and in the woods when they were doing nothing more revolutionary than worshipping their God. Writing after the French Revolution Burns says, effectively, that the covenanting cause too was one about democracy and freedom of conscience. He helps brings the Covenanters back in from the historical cold, when for a hundred years or more they had been consigned to the dustbin, seen simply as fanatics.

Here in Dumfriesshire in 1791, Burns also wrote sympathetically about her religion to the Catholic lady, Winifred Maxwell-Constable. Some months earlier, Burns had written his song, ‘Lament of Mary Queen of Scots’, in which he shows understanding for the circumstances, the psychology in which the Catholic Stuart Queen had found herself. So, as with the Covenanters, a previously marginalised historical figure is shown empathy by Burns. And, of course, what we should also see here is the religious spectrum – Covenanter and Catholic – Burns the great enlightenment writer knows that there is more than one way of being a Christian, of being a Scot. In his early days as a mature poet, around 1785, Burns had written ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night’, a work that said in the face of quite a lot of prejudice against the simplicity of their worship, that Presbyterians too had a noble culture and history, a beauty even in their more spare liturgy. Burns about a year or so after this also lamented what he took to be the vandalism of the Reformation that had ruined Linlithgow. From Ellisland in 1788, Burns wrote a poem contemplating the piety of a medieval hermit ‘bedesman’ or rosary reciter. Burns wrote sympathetically of women, sometimes from their perspectives, of highlanders, of Jacobites and many other identities. The ‘authentic’ Burns lies in the fact that he understands that human nature is variable, changeable, that he is sympathetic to different ways of believing of living. This is the authentic human Burns, in so far as we should claim to know this.

Burns turned again and again to the Book of Job. Like us all, he could be somewhat self-pitying; but he was also genuinely fascinated, taxed by the problem of suffering. Job 30:20, ‘I cry unto thee, thou dost not hear me: I stand up, and Thou regardest me not.’ Burns often felt that he was afflicted with problems that came out of nowhere, but he also responded in verse, in song both to lament his own sorrows and those of others: the Glengarry Highlanders, for instance, in near starvation as they were prevented from emigration to Canada by an over-bearing landlord. Job, Chapter 30: ‘My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep.’ When he inhabits the psychology of Covenanter or Catholic queen or highlander, this is what Burns does. He channels sorrow, misfortune into art, one of the consolations of the fallen world. In the case of the Macdonalds of Glengarry prohibited from obtaining a better life, Burns writes his ‘Address of Beelzebub’ in 1786, where a senior devil ‘praises’ the Earl of Breadalbane for his part in this. This is a keynote throughout Burns’s work where he can’t understand ‘man’s inhumanity to man’; here in this poem, Breadalbane is out-devilling the devils. Burns knew well Paul’s epistles to the Romans. Romans, 12:9 - ‘Hate what is evil; cling to what is good ... Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.’ The fervent satire, the hatred of evil in ‘Address of Beelzebub’ or indeed, the kirk satire, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ is about attacking individual human action that brings about malfeasance. In the case of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, Burns even sent a copy of the manuscript to a minister-friend. Too often in the early twentieth-century especially but also these days there are those who wish to see Burns as anti-religious, as secular. He wasn’t: the evidence is that he disliked fanaticism of any kind, and that extended to what he took to be Godless fanatics as well.

Burns the religious poet is not an aspect much emphasised, except as an occasional critic of falsely religious types, but there is also, for instance, his beautiful meditation, ‘A Winter Night’ (1786) where he writes, ‘The heart benevolent and kind/The most resembles God.’ The underfelt here is the Gospel of Matthew, to which he refers in his letters, and the idea of the benevolent father. Prodigal son, that he himself was, Burns dwelt on the need for forgiveness, for unconditional love, unconditional love in the face of the frail condition of humanity.

Too much has been written I think about the morality or immorality of Robert Burns. Was he good, was he bad, how would he have voted in the September 2014 referendum? Well, the short answer is, ‘he’s deid!’ It is even harder and more presumptuous of people now in the twenty first century to make claims about his character than for those who might have judged him when he was alive. What we have left behind are interesting journals, tour diaries, letters, over 200 poems, many of them masterpieces and over 400 songs including some of the most beautiful ever written.

When anyone asks about Robert Burns’s perspective, I also think of his poem ‘To A Louse’: which is about point of view in both a very serious and entertaining fashion. At the kirk Jenny is aware of the male gaze, of her many admirers – or so she thinks – ‘These guys behind me are looking at me because I’m a babe,’ or so she thinks. Of course, the reader knows that the narrator and possibly others are looking at the Louse crawling on her. So with her eyes in the back of her head, Jenny is clocking the men, the men are clocking her, and no-one particularly is paying attention to the minister or to God, ostensibly what they should be doing at a church service. The point being made here by our poet, is that this is often the way it is: we are easily distracted, but not because we are stupid, but rather because we are inquisitive animals. A bit like the louse, exploring the woman, though we, of course, are much more intelligent. Part of the joke of the poem is the narrator berating a dumb creature: ‘Ha! Whare ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie!/Your impudence protects you sairly’. Ultimately, it is not the louse that is ‘impudent’ or presumptuous, it we (the human animals) who are so. The louse is just doing what comes naturally, and it is humans who are a bit unnatural: gathered in church for a particular function: worship, but attending to something else instead: a pretty woman and an insect. Jenny too is proud of her looks, of the effect she presumes she is having on the young men.

O, wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!

We human beings dress up in our finery, our fancy clothes, our social pretensions, our social climbing: we are the unnatural ones to some extent. And some power, God, might make us realise that we are rather insect-like: especially in His powerful eyes. This is a poem that reminds us of our mortality: we are only here for a short time, so we needn’t get so proud about our status. The louse is referred to as a ‘ferlie’, a ‘wonder’ or a ‘marvel’. In a sense this is ironic, part of its chastisement by the narrator. But in another way the louse is a ‘ferlie’ part of the wonder of nature, part of God’s nature, doing what God and/or Nature intended. But even as some scorn is turned back on humanity in the poem, there is also tolerance, forgiveness, tenderness even: as Jenny is looked at sympathetically. She would be horrified by the creature on her, horrified by what the narrator is actually looking at. But she is pretty, she is attractive, she is part of a human family gathered together in church, no matter how imperfectly. And ultimately, the poem ‘To A Louse’ extends both sympathy and a bit of scorn to humanity. Because we, all of us, probably deserve a bit of both. We are both full of faults and we are also – each and every one of us – ‘ferlies’, marvels of God’s creation. Our mortality is both what is intended, a fairly short period on earth and the capacity to do good things, at the very least, to sympathise with our fellow human creatures and perhaps even non-human creatures, if we are as we think, at the ‘vera tapmost, towrin height’ of creation, to quote the poem again. In art, Robert Burns (Scotland’s national bard) did great things. If we can emulate that, the good thing he did is something we all can actually do: extend sympathy and love to our fellow human beings and to all creation.


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