Lent, the Subway Station, and a Descent into Solitude: “Burnt Norton,” Movement III

It’s hard to speak of spiritual things. They involve our deepest selves: our fears and hopes, our doubts and trials, our highest aspirations, that private work we do, every moment of every day, on the construction site of our souls.

So it’s hard to talk about things such as Lent, prayer, meditation, the things we work on so intensely during these forty lengthening days. (So intensely! The poet Bernard Spencer caught the feeling right when he described himself at work at night: “with all I am and all that I have been,/ [I] sweat the night into words, as who cracks stones.”)

And T.S. Eliot has made things especially hard for himself, in writing a meditative, spiritual poem about the way we may discover the Incarnation. The theory of time he’s working with is sometimes called “the immanence theory.” The Timeless – that is, the presence of God, with whom all time and space and distance are one – resides within the shifting, flickering nature of time as we human beings normally feel it. Unless we’re saints, though, the best we get are flickers, hints, “unintended moments” when insight hits us. But the Timeless is in there, the Incarnation, God inside every second, if we knew how to be with it.

How to get there? Well, it’s not a “there,” really, but it feels like one, different from our “here,” this place full of cell phones, self-driving cars, breakfast, unpayable bills to pay, the Kardashians, stuff the boss, spouse, kids, and friends want us to do, and socks with holes in the toe.

At the end of Movement II of “Burnt Norton,” We read, “Only through time time is conquered.” No matter how we search for God, we begin in this, our time-saturated moment and place. As for the journey, we read at the beginning of the poem, from Herakleitos, “The way up is the way down,” which also means, “The way there is the way back.” We’re not going anywhere, because God is here. And we’re not vaulting into the past or reaching into the future; we’re staying. And yet, what a journey awaits. So Eliot’s next step is to bring us to a “place,” a place to which we must descend.

The first word of Movement III, then, is “Here,” and it’s a drab, mundane place, the kind Eliot was so splendid at evoking in his poetry. And we must descend to get there! It’s an underground (in American English, a subway) station. We even know which one, not necessary to know, but interesting anyway: The Gloucester Road Station, in the Kensington neighborhood of London, serving the District, Circle, and Picadilly Lines.

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light


I have to smile. Subway stations really are places of “disaffection.” You’re in them only because you want to be someplace else, and that means you want to get out of there as fast as you can. Eliot has brought us here because, if ever a worldly place were saturated with “Time before and time after,” a place like this is. Schedules, timetables, deadlines, trains to catch. It’s a metaphor for the life we must somehow shed if we’re going to go on this journey. A subway station is the ultimate “Here.”

And the dim light catches his eye. You can just imagine it: electric light, a light between dark and light. As he notes, it’s not either daylight or darkness, “Neither plenitude nor vacancy.” And his description is the Eliot of “Prufrock,” The Waste Land, or The Hollow Men. This light is

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hapstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate.

In a poem called The Four Quartets, you look for music, and though the setting is drab, there’s plenty of it here. The rhythms of the lines are irresistible. And you get the repetitions of time before and time after; the wind, in various senses; all those -tion words picking up on one another, especially in the splendid “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we?!

There’s a satirical edge to this picture of rush hour at the subway. When the train shooshes in and lets people off, they ascend into the night air, and it’s an “Eructation of unhealthy souls,” literally a belch of people into the night. Yuck.

This, clearly, is not the here we need to reach. “Not here the darkness,” we read. There is a different descent, a different “darkness” we need to seek.

 Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit

Wow – a sudden change. The word Descend is an order, a call on us to get going. Where? There’s only one place, “the world of perpetual solitude,/ World not world, but that which is not world.” It sure isn’t the subway world, but “that which is not world,” the world of prayer and meditation, where we are not on the clock, but rather alone in the kingdom that is, as Jesus says in John 18:36, “not of this world.”

Deprivation … destitution … Dessication … evacuation … inoperancy … What an unrelenting, austere prescription. We must put off or destroy all we think we own. The world of sense, in which we live so avidly, must be, in a superbly chosen word, dessicated, shriveled and dried up, so it gives nothing to the senses any more. “Fancy,” our restless, promiscuous imaginations, must be “evacuated,” and even spirit, which you’d think would reign supreme here, must be “inoperant,” still, quiet. We somehow have to get our minds empty and still, at rest, open, clear.

This is that internal darkness, solitude, and stillness we must seek, total poverty, total control and subjection of our vaulting minds, for the sake of quiet and clarity. In a state of human nature, we achieve this state only by accident, here, there.

Yet this is the Lenten state: dark, alone, open, quiet, clear. This is where, for hundreds of years, billions of lives, so many have sought to go. It reminds us of Matthew 6:6, in which Jesus says, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and having shut your door, pray to your father who is in secret.” That shutting of the door … that’s a Lenten moment. It shuts out the street, the noise, the bad, dim light. This is the way we must pray “while the world moves … on its metalled ways/ Of time past and time future.” Isn’t “metalled ways,” returning us to the train tracks for just a moment, great?

So we must descend, get deep, deep, “not in movement/ But abstention from movement.” We must descend lower, into a darkness of spirit, to get where we’re going. And our way there will be our way back to where we are (“This is the one way, and the other/ Is the same”) (“the way there is the way back”) (“in my end is my beginning”).

— John Timpane

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