“Except for the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
I remember the moment it happened. I was sitting in St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Princeton NJ, listening to a performance of The Ascension by the French composer, Olivier Messiaen. As a colossal cascade of harmonic colors from the organ washed over me during the third movement, “Outburst of Joy,” I was suspended in a still point. Gazing at the crucifix, I thought, “It really happened. It’s happening now – Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, ascension. He’s among us now, here.” It was a moment, or an eternity that lasted a moment, which unmoored me from time – a moment where, as Eliot put it, “To be conscious is not to be in time.”
Of course, I didn’t stay there, fixed to the pew, frozen in my insight. The passage of time is “Woven in the weakness of the human body,” and it “Protects mankind from heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure.” I went on with the day: driving home, conversation and dinner with my wife and children, the rituals and routines as our household gradually goes to sleep. But now those simple movements through time, repeated with variation but ceaselessly, happen in the light of my moment of insight, sometimes remembered with clarity and other times residing in the back of my mind, like a hint or a clue. It happened; it’s happening; He’s here – always and at this instant.
Eliot struggles to name what this still point is, this reality behind reality. He begins by stating what it is not: “But neither arrest nor movement. / And do not call it fixity,… / Neither movement from nor towards, / Neither ascent nor decline.” The still point is not static; it is more like the essence of dance, like the top of the arc between ascent and decline that is neither but holds both together and would not exist apart from their opposite movements.
After these negative examples, Eliot turns to the concept of reconciliation, first encountered in the “boarhound and the boar” whose patterns of conflict are “reconciled among the stars.” Later in the poem, it is the old world and new world that are reconciled as the new completes the “partial ecstasy” and resolves the “partial horror” of the old. The indwelling of eternity in our time doesn’t obliterate temporal reality, but rather makes time whole. Maybe when we are asked to consider all our actions and thoughts in the light of Christ, it is not so much about our own striving but rather allowing God’s grace to touch all of those moments, to be involved in the completion of their partial ecstasy and resolution of their partial horror.
The paradox of the intersection of eternity and time, the paradox of our existence, is summed up in the final line of this section of Burnt Norton, “Only through time time is conquered.” The reconciliation of opposites is now cast as a victory of one over the other, but a mysterious victory since eternity must be mediated and embodied by time. Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn, “Christus Paradox,” holds the many opposing images of Jesus in tension and places Him at the still point without which “there would be no dance.” She praises Christ with a new name, “the everlasting instant.” Jesus was, and is, and ever shall be a living still point, and I can’t shake the feeling that I encountered Him that afternoon in St. Paul’s Church. This Lent, as we are called once again to follow Jesus, to walk the kingdom way, may we pray and watch for those moments when eternity breaks into our time, those everlasting instants that show us the very face of the still point at the heart of our faith.
Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and victory;
worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant;
you who are our death and life.*
*“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” Sylvia Dunstan ©1991 GIA Publication, Inc. Hymn 274 in Glory to God ©2013 Westminster John Knox Press