We have steadily followed East Coker’s exploration of the pattern of life on earth—and under it—birth, growth, decay, death, repeat. This time in an age—1940, WWII—when death is out of season. Then darkness. Then life’s submission to the wounded surgeon. Finally the seeming pinnacle of East Coker—the crucifixion/eucharist.
Now Eliot is back again protesting the inadequacy of words (see Burnt Norton V). Words, words, words. Read this section out loud, slowly building up to the period. But you are not at an end. Only a breath mark. “And” he continues. Another long fight with words and emotions. Period. Breath. “And.” Another tussle now with those who have said it better (Dante, of course, and others). But then, at last, acceptance.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
As Jeff pointed out in Burnt Norton, V: welcome to the preacher’s dilemma. We are to speak—using words, what else?—of the unspeakable. Every week I struggle with words exactly this way. At some point I hate the sermon I cannot write. It is boring. It has been said before and before. It is unrelenting in its inadequacy. If it were not for people who would be staring at me on Sunday morning, I would simply leave it and bake a pie. But I can’t, so I struggle on and complain to God.
Let me riff on this word problem for a bit. (Only through words, words are conquered?) Pick a word. Any word. Umbrella, for example. Say it 26 or 42 times in a row and it loses its value and reference. It becomes only sounds. These words preachers use week after week in context after context—grace, redemption, incarnation, salvation, faith, hope, even love—they become sounds we nod after, but no longer puzzle about. They’ve lost their capacity to startle us, to send us deeper. And yet there is something more. Wherever we are this side of eternity, there is something more real that we have yet to know.
The over-familiarity of words in the preacher’s context is compounded in the poet’s public setting by the words which lack shared use. Eliot seems to be trying to get at something—the Word—in a secular age where all do not share the common fund of religious language or experience.
Even if Dante and others have done it before, it is Eliot’s time to struggle to speak of the still point, the dance, the always present incarnation, and what it is not or what is not it. (I’m becoming as obtuse as Eliot.) Again this is the characteristic of the secular age that philosopher Charles Taylor writes about: meet anyone on the street and you cannot assume a common cosmology, philosophical framework, even news source.
The quote from Heraclitus that begins the whole project clues us in:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί
I. p. 77. Fr. 2.
Although logos [word, reason] is common to all, most
live as if they had a wisdom of their own.
How can Eliot share his own experience of sacred truth in such a way that it invokes the Word that is common to us all; how when we live as if there is only individual wisdom, only “my truth”? Hear in “Word that is common to all” the melody line from John’s gospel — “In the beginning was the Word”—logos—Christ. “Through him [the Word] all things …” “In him [the Word] was life …”
I think of the preacher’s task in the explanation of Philip Henslowe from the movie “Shakespeare in Love”:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
… Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
It turns out well–at least sometimes. And we call it a Holy Spirit thing. Whether or not it turns out well is God’s business. We simply must try and leave it at that.
Long breath. New theme.
Home. East Coker was the Eliot family home. His ancestors were there. Eliot’s remains are there. Beginnings. Endings.
Under the stars shining with billion-year old light. Under the lamplight looking at old photos. Time past is time present.
Then. Plop. Here which could be anywhere.
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Love. Pianissimo. Too important to be shouted. Love.
No “Here.” No “Now.”
Here and now only cease to matter when one lets go of ego. Or at least that left-brained consciousness that is keeping track of where things are and what needs to be done. The left-brain knows its boundaries—the individual self distinct from everything else—and guards us, perhaps too well. (if you have never watched it, please go to Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk – My Stroke of Insight. Google it. I’ll wait.)
When there is love, here and now, the place and time, don’t matter, do they? Here and now are only markers, but it could be any place and time because being known by love is greater. Love received, returned. Love, a thing in itself. Again, there are no words or combination of words that are adequate.
But wherever and whenever you are, old men (and women), explore. Explore that holy, deeper way. (Forgive me, Mr. Eliot, but Mr. Auden keeps ringing in my ear.)
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
See why I couldn’t resist: those dear dead dancers at some long ago wedding in Movement I?
Eliot gets the last word. This adventure takes us to a deeper communion, out of the dirt and off the land of East Coker, to the ocean of eternity.
In the end is my beginning.