That Is Not It, at All: Burnt Norton 5

This final section of the first quartet (appropriately enough, section five!) is a deep dive into the impossible—and hopefully it’s not a dry pool. (Would Thomas Stearns Eliot appreciate the humor? I do indeed think we need some, after all this hifalutin language and metaphysics…. But alas, already I digress.)

We dive into the impossible—and there are so many possible impossibilities we could explore as we’ve ended this first leg of the journey: the impossibility of returning to that garden where we began, the aboriginal Garden of Genesis and the particular garden of our own experience; the impossibility of experiencing the eternal in time; the impossibility that the true dance takes place in stillness; and finally, that “what is only living can only die.” This is the section where they all gather; this is the place where all the paradoxes come to dance.


And so we end this first Quartet, Burnt Norton, with really a summary of the state of affairs we’ve been exploring: the distracted distraction (from distraction); all of us London tube commuters retching forth on metalled ways past the depressing stops and towns; and here’s a fitting end for all of this terrible particularity: “ridiculous, the waste sad time.” Quite far from the garden, indeed. The Garden.

But here, at the beginning of this section, we have something different. A different paradox, one that bespeaks a different kind of movement: words. Music. They move, within the timeless and spaceless places we cannot get to, the places only outside of which real consciousness is possible (since it requires no-place and no-time). Make sense? No?

And – can we talk about the coincidence here that it’s a preacher who gets this particular section of Burnt Norton?

Words, which echo in the silence. Words, which imply an attempt at movement of the timeless into time, whose meaning we can only perceive in the pattern, if we look away at the letters and groc the spirit: concept into concept-lessness. We’re playing around with words, which are the only implements we have to penetrate the mystery.

Of course, it’s just words that have created this scramble in your mind, which may start to make some sense as to what it’s all about – in hints and guesses. That seems to be what T. S. E. is trying to do; to use words to confuse you, to trick you into seeing a pattern, if we look past the particular words. But he is making clear the frustrating nature of mere words, these cheap tools, as a means to describe a mystery that can’t be spoken of, written of, can’t be captured in mere words. And yet words are all we have.

Eliot reminds me of the breathlessness of Paul, trying to recapitulate the mystery of the third heaven he’s seen but can’t describe, words tumbling upon words trying to get to it—no, rather, trying to get you to it. And so thus:

Not that only, but the co-existence…the end precedes the beginning and the end and the beginning were always there…all is always now….

And it’s as if the word-jalopy T. S. Eliot’s been trying to drive into the indescribable crashes into a huge wall, and breaks apart, only to be met by the hecklers who’ve been joking all along at the ridiculousness of the enterprise:

…Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still. Shrieking voices / Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering, / Always assail them…

 And a few lines later, we find that it’s the Prince of Hecklers, Herr Satan, who represents them in the desert to the one who is the Word. This is not just a one-time, passing observation of the Great Poet – we shall see it in the attempted raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment always deteriorating, in East Coker 5. (5 again? Coincidence?)

And – can we talk about the coincidence here that it’s a preacher who gets this particular section of Burnt Norton? One whose profession depends on words to describe the indescribable Word. Here’s where we must speak of yet another impossibility—the impossibility that most every preacher confronts on a weekly basis: to use mere words to describe the mystery of God. To use mere words, to convey what words can’t ever capture.

That is not what I meant

I think Eliot might have meant for us to call to mind another sad figure from his work: the figure of Prufrock. The pathetic man living his life in the “waste sad time,” (was Eliot thinking of him here?) who can’t say a word because he’s afraid. Afraid that the object of his love (his appetent lust?) won’t understand:

“That is not it, at all.”

How often have we preachers experienced this? That’s not what I meant? That’s not what I said. And, after the fact, how many of us have thought – or even said: “gee, wish I’d said that.” How often has anybody felt this. We can’t communicate even to each other.

How humbling it is. And how miraculous when, in a point in time, people get it, make sense of it, see the pattern through your feeble words.

I’m reminded here of Karl Barth: we cannot speak of God. We must speak of God. How to break the impossibility?

Only God. Only grace. Grace that reaches to us not with words, but with a Word, a single elegant Word, both particular in time and place, and timeless and boundless, whose essence is and was and always will be LIFE. Eternal life.

But we’re not there yet. We’re only at the very beginning, whose end is always present: here. To go up, we must go down. Acknowledge the waste sad time, scramble our brains just a wee bit more.

With words. Mere words.

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