“. . . and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled . . .” (T.S. Eliot, from “Ash Wednesday”)

eliot

Eliot before Anglicanism. The Prodigal Son?

(Written March 1, 2017)

Today is Ash Wednesday. A day to read T.S. Eliot.

Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled. (Not Eliot)

I obviously can’t be sure, but I would guess that I could sing – stop keyboarding and start singing – lines of the words of as many as forty hymns the authors wrote either for Ash Wednesday specifically or for Lent generally.

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray.

I have written at least once each day since February 24, the last time I posted here, written always with a guiding idea, one might almost say a “thesis,” only to have the idea disintegrate under my fingers before I reached the conclusion.

I have written about Trump, and I have written about not writing about Trump. I have written about a couple of scary experiences of forgetting that left me (moderately) shaken, and I have written about not being shaken by such experiences. I have written about a couple of joyful moments of tutoring, and I have written about the impossibility of teaching anyone anything. I have written about the shocking and irrational hatred of President Obama I encountered in conversation with a friend before the election, and I have written about my hope that my dislike of Trump is intellectual and political and not viciously personal as my friend’s is of President Obama. I have written about my pleasure at living by myself and having solitude, and I have written about my fear of being old and alone.

All of these unfinished writings are in a folder on my desktop either haunting me or waiting for me to finish them.

Last weekend I had lunch with an old friend. We were catching up on conversation we have not had in too any months. In the process of telling me about a reception he attended at the Meadows Art Museum, he said, “. . . and my Higher Power told me not to leave.” He was explaining how he happened to have an especially interesting and enjoyable time at the reception even though it was the sort of social small-talk event we both dislike.

My initial response, which I did not act on, was, “Whoa! You’ve found a Higher Power who speaks to you directly?” My friend has always been, in general, as uneasy talking about “God” as I am, and his direct reference surprised me to say the least.

My friend and I are both well beyond T.S. Eliot’s age when he converted to Anglicanism – in 1927 at age 39. (We are both approaching Eliot’s age, 77, when he died.)  Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” is the first major work he wrote after he found faith and the English church.

Ash Wednesday” haunts me. I do not understand it. Being a good Anglican, i.e., Episcopalian (not devout or even believing, but good), I understand and can explain the Biblical and religio-historical references throughout the poem. I can even explain the “movement” of the ideas through the poem. I understand it syntactically and logically.

But I don’t, as they say, “get it” and have not since the first time I read it years ago. Section V of the long poem begins

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. . . .     (T.S. Eliot, 1930)

The Word (upper case W) is the Word from the first chapter of the Gospel According to John. The Word is Jesus – or is Jesus the embodiment of the Word, the truth, the reality, the essence of existence, the voice of God? The Word is the light shining in the darkness, the spiritual truth around which the world with all of its words whirls.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (John 1: 1-5).

I am hardly a “writer.” I write a great deal, and I offer some of it for interested persons to read. But I use words for the most part to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, not necessarily to communicate or create a work of beauty. I have no illusion that I can keep company with T.S. Eliot (or with the Gospel According to John).

When I was a practicing, believing, not simply “good” Anglican, early each year I looked forward to Ash Wednesday. I saw it as a day to think about and acknowledge the reality of my life whirling about the Word but never coming to rest in the Word. I could take comfort in the church’s understanding that I am part of the “unstilled world” whirling, spinning about the center, the Word, and spending my words (all of our words) without listening to the Word.

I learned the words of those Anglican hymns.

Wilt thou forgive the sin, where I begun
Which is my sin, though it were done before?

I knew that acknowledging (confessing, as the church would have it) my sin, my whirling around the center, the Word, with unstilled words, always and forever missing the meaning of the Word, which does not speak to me directly, was enough. Confessing was all I could do. Wearing ashes on my forehead as an outward sign of the inward reality that I knew I am always and forever whirling.

The glory of these forty days we celebrate with thanks and praise,
For Christ, through whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

My words, words about Trump, about failing memory, about teaching, about hatred, about solitude, perhaps most importantly about fear are inadequate to stop the whirling. I cannot find the “centre of the silent Word” by my own speaking, writing, hearing.

rembrandt-the_return_of_the_prodigal_son

Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son.” (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage.)

As a good Anglican, I used to believe that was not a depressing or nihilistic thought. But now? These days I can scarcely read through to the end of Eliot’s poem. I know too well that “the right time and the right place are not here.” With the church, however, I sense – perhaps my sense may some day again go as far as belief – that not “denying the voice” of the Word brings me one step closer to a “place of grace” where I can stop whirling.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(T.S. Eliot, 1930)

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