Hit by a book: East Coker 4

What amazing luck. Or misfortune. For the lot to fall to me, the coincidence, to get to comment on this particular movement of this our second Quartet.

Me, a preacher (again), me a Calvinist. It seems like a tee shot here.

What do I mean? Well, this is Eliot in a way finally being a bit clear as to what he’s up to. Hey man, it’s symbolic, and we can even get the symbolism without digging too deep. Dig?

But it’s in being clear that Eliot confuses us; once we think we get it, we’re “questioning” what it is we get.

So, to be clear: this is about that stuff Calvinists puff about so much: sin. This is about the one who gave us that particular disease (Adam, the ruined millionaire, who had it all but endowed us with death). And this is about the cure: Jesus, the wounded surgeon, healing us with bleeding hands. This is about both the disease and the cure, but it’s there where the clarity ends, because the disease is the cure.


OK – let me try to riff on that using another favorite work of literature of mine, a story by the southern writer Flannery O’Connor called Revelation. If you’ve read the story, you know it takes place in a setting quite similar to what Eliot is writing about here: a doctor’s office. A bunch of people waiting for the doctor (metaphor!), and among them, the main character of the story Ruby Turpin, a self-satisfied, racist and ignorant lady who thanks Jesus “for making everything the way it is,” and for making her exactly the way she is: a woman with a pleasant disposition.

Ruby goes on and on about her self-satisfied ordering of the world, when a silent, pimply-faced girl sitting in the corner, an undergraduate from Wellesley college named Mary Grace (metaphor!) suddenly throws the textbook she’s been reading (entitled Human Development – metaphor!) straight at Ruby Turpin’s head, whereupon she goes on a rampage and calls Ruby “a warthog from hell.”

hit by a book

A deeply disturbing moment for one who had been so sure of her own goodness, her own disease-free existence. But it’s the knock on the head (with the book) that jolts her into a disposition not of pleasantness, but of doubt. She goes home to clean her pigpens (um, metaphor!), and has a vision of heaven,

a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right.

And yet, amidst this vision, Ruby finally sees herself and her husband clearly, namely that “by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”

I think of that vision, and I think too of the vision Eliot wants to show us through his fragile words, which comes to us only in “hints and guesses,” and in the most unlikely of moments, through the thing we would never have expected. Pain. Doubt. Disease. A serious knock on the head that jolts us to our senses. And maybe even gives us a glimpse of eternity.

I’ve used that story more than once in preaching, as a way of describing what preaching is. It is, in a way, about the imperative to afflict people. Or to put it more precisely, to let the book, the preacher’s scalpel, do the afflicting. The task of preaching, and poetry, is to “question the distempered part.” Does it hurt there? There? And perhaps, the only way we’re really going to discover the real cause is radical surgery, performed not by me (just part of the nursing staff, here to remind us of the curse), but by the real Surgeon.

In some ways, it may be as simple as the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous (or any of the 12-step programs):

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

To admit the disease is to initiate the cure.

But it’s really not quite that simple because, again, what he’s saying here is that the disease is the cure. Here’s the essence of the paschal mystery: the lamb slain who now reigns; the cross of death that now gives life. It’s the revelation of Julian, discovering the love that cures through the disease that nearly kills. It’s all about the meaning of suffering, that which is at the heart of our Lenten meditation.

Here’s the question: what is our attitude toward disease? Is it something to be avoided? Denied? Or might our diseases and ailments disclose to us something of the cure to our Disease. Years ago, I read a very powerful book called The Wounded Storyteller, by Arthur Frank. The premise of the book is really a question: can our diseases teach us. The “Wounded Storyteller” referred to is our body, and the book provides several meditations about people’s experience with the “story” of their body, and the malady that has afflicted it. It’s through disease that we realize our connectedness to each other; it’s through suffering that we realize our capacity for what makes us truly human: compassion, the ultimate healing art.

Yet another reason for mentioning the word coincidence at the beginning of this post: I’m writing this as I am recovering from the flu. A nasty business whose details I won’t describe. But I’ve spent much of this week in the Lenten wilderness of being knocked on my ***, hit with a different kind of affliction, feeling the enigma of the fever chart. And amidst that state of being, does one ever think: is this here to teach me?

Which brings me to mention the figure who is lurking (well, that’s not the right word, presiding?) in the background – here and elsewhere. Dante. This is all about purgatory, unmistakably in the language of Dante (purgatorial fire and ice, flaming roses, smoking briars)  something maybe a Calvinist may get a bit itchy about, but poetically so instructive. In Dante’s schema, the only difference between hell and purgatory has to do with our view of suffering. In hell, suffering is meaningless. In purgatory, it’s the thing, the “grace,” that enables us heavenward.

How indeed do we call that Friday good? Do we? Aye, not so clear.

– Jeff Vamos


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