T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Eliot is best known for “his brooding masterpiece” The Waste Land, the cryptic condemnation of desiccated, fruitless modernism.
In this, Fr. George Rutler compares Eliot to John the Bapist, the greatest of the prophets by being the last of them. Eliot became the prophet whose poetry ended the stiflingly self-conscious modernist era.
But Rutler wants us to know the rest of the story. He offers a withering condemnation of the college professors who left him with the impression that Eliot “had been cut from the same cloth as the French existentialists.”
Writing the introduction to Thomas Howard’s Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Rutler asserts:
What they taught about Eliot was equivalent to saying that Saul of Tarsus was a driven man who had roughed up the first Christians, without mentioning his Damascus Road and consequent epistles.
Having experienced conversion and confirmation into the Anglican Church, Eliot increasingly offered Anglo-Catholic imagery in poetry of heartfelt spiritual desire. Ash Wednesday (1930) is the first long poem published after Eliot’s conversion.
Written in the voice of one who had lost faith but has since found courage to believe, Ash Wednesday calls us out of our own world-weariness.
In answer to the desperate question, “Where shall the word be found, where shall the word resound?” Eliot replies in the negative: “Not here, there is not enough silence.”
Could the poet have declared “there is not enough silence” in 1930?
How we might long for the noise of that time. Yet Eliot’s concern reveals a truth about us. We have a million muffling ways to avoid hearing the Word. In overwork, in our entertainment, in our addiction to politics, in our useless chatter.
“Teach us to care and not to care,” prays the poet:
Teach us to sit still.
This Lent, let’s seek silence with the desperation of wastelanders.
Let us do battle with din and fight to find moments of quiet contemplation.
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
This Ash Wednesday and throughout this holy season, let us seek silence. In the early morning. In the night. In the stillness of an open, empty church. In adoration.
Take the time. Fight for silence.
“Where shall the word be found, where shall the word resound?”
Not here, there is not enough silence.
“Lent is the refusal to be distracted.” Fr. Michael Rennier’s T.S. Eliot’s death-haunted poem for Ash Wednesday is a short, helpful read.
So also: T.S. Eliot: Modern Poet.
Read Ash Wednesday’s full text here.
A century before Eliot, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was calling for more silence! More in this short reflection: Kierkegaard’s Remedy for the Modern World: Create Silence.
This post is part of a series (see A Lenten Invitation from a Babbling Brook: Focus on Speech and Silence).
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