We find ourselves in the peculiar time that is Lent. A wilderness season akin to Jesus’ 40 days and Israel’s 40 years. A space/time through which we journey seeking some truth, some glimpse of the holy, the intersection that is embodied in the cross and tomb. It is a good time for Four Quartets which contemplates time and memory and meaning and the holy center of it all.
Philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age addresses the meaning of belief in an age when belief in God is no longer a given. He writes that belief and unbelief are not rivals but “different kinds of lived experience.” This seems to me to be precisely what Eliot is addressing in the Four Quartets, a certain kind of lived experience through which one discovers transcendence in their life and in Life. Taylor writes:
We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving, as inspiring. Perhaps this sense of fullness is something we just catch glimpses of from afar off; we have the powerful intuition of what fullness would be, were we to be in that condition, e.g., of peace and wholeness, or able to act on that level, of integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness. But sometimes there will be moments of experienced fullness, of joy and fulfillment, where we will feel ourselves there. (A Secular Age, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 5)
Eliot’s poem begins by setting this lived experience within Time, observing that all time, past and future, leads to or is contained in now, is present in the present. (It is so hard not to play with the words he plays with.)
Then he leads us down the garden path to our own private world of remembering places we never were. Disturbing the dust of the dead, of memory. Memories of that which might have been, which are as affecting as memories of that which was.
The garden. Eden’s garden. And a garden, a particular place in our experience. An English garden for Eliot. For me, the much visited Elizabethan Garden in North Carolina. Within its pierced walls a rose garden, small, square, with one way in and out; just the roses and the walkway.
Because Eliot’s is a rose-garden. Dante’s multifloriate rose of paradise? Eden and Heaven, Time past and Time future; the scrim before or behind our own contemplated past and future.
Lent with the Four Quartets is a journey into our own memories and sense of self in relation to the large questions. We begin this first movement as we do in the lectionary leading into Lent with a transfiguration of sorts. Jesus takes his followers up the mountain.
Shall we follow? “Quick,” said the bird. “Find them. Find them.”
We are following echoes — other echoes in the garden.
We are in pursuit of the possibility of something more, Taylor’s “fullness of life.” The meaning of our memories: are they true, do they reveal, or are they distractions, are they deceptions? Here at the beginning, all we have are the questions.
Meaning won’t let you hold too tightly. Especially transcendent meaning. It won’t stay still. Sometimes it is the mirage in the empty concrete pool, like the mirage on the desert, shimmering water, especially intense in the center, mirroring a world that seems to be, but is not.
But the “lotos rose.” Lotos. Rose. Come on. Eliot must have done that on purpose. The rose of paradise and the Buddhist lotus: a symbol which I understand signals enlightenment and purity rising above the mud where it is rooted; flowering, seemingly detached from the earth. Eliot has intimated something of the holy in the mirage.
What is this doing here?
Is it the deception of the thrush? Deception in the garden; there is always deception in the Garden. The serpent says, “You will not die. … You will be like God.”
Or is it the truth of the unheard music and hidden laughter, of exhilarated innocence? Intimations again of the holy. Perhaps the moment of the joy and fulfillment Taylor speaks of.
It is so hard to tell whether we are following images/memories that point towards truth or towards deception. This is true of my own efforts in contemplation and memory. What of my memory of the day, of the year, of my life is true, and what of it is self-deception? Memory and meaning are slippery.
The cloud comes and the ephemeral disappears and the meditation is over. Go, go, go, says the bird.
There was a cloud, too, at the Transfiguration. It spoke, telling the followers to listen. Then it was over and down the mountain they went.
Human kind cannot bear too much reality.
If “reality” is the holy, the holy known in the contemplation of what is true — then Eliot’s sentence here is true for me. I find the business of contemplation both compelling and frightening. Conventional praying — Okay God, here was my day and here are my issues, etc. etc. — that is fine. But being open to or laid open by these moments of holy reality, that is another matter entirely. Something in me is always pulling away like the demons who ask “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth.” Don’t get too close.
And so we go down the mountain. There is no sense building shelters in the transfigured moment anyway; that isn’t how it works. It won’t be held onto. And shelters built in our memories are too controlling and probably wrong.
So what’s the point then? Ah, the point. Eliot is all about that. But there are miles to go, much to lay bare.
Perhaps for today it is enough that we have these questions about what is true, holy, real, and what is illusion or distraction as we remember, consider, meditate.
Fare forward, voyagers,