When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road
When we are distracted by the disturbance of the day’s news and worry for the future, Eliot asserts that we are drawn to the many methods of prediction, scrutinizing the night sky, peering into the crystal ball, casting lots to tell what will happen in lands far from us or in the heart of our own towns and cities. There is much to worry one with each passing day in our nation and our world today. I turn to the pundits, the op-ed page, the late-night hosts, my preferred news outlets – obsessively so, indulging in what sometimes becomes “the usual pastime and drugs” of our times. I become caught in a bleak meditation on my apparent helplessness in the face of a frightening and unstoppable chain of events. It becomes easy to despair, and I scrutinize the opinions and predictions of others to discern what it all could possibly mean.
How many of us, like myself, cling to the dimensions of past and future and miss the moments of incarnation, the moments of true meaning, that happen all around us – incarnation that is sometimes revealed in a flash of revelation, like the rose-garden at the beginning of Burnt Norton? Of course, very few among us will be able to selflessly walk away from time past and time future to realize the ever-present intersection of time present and eternity. We’re warned early on in Burnt Norton that “humankind cannot bear much reality,” and later in The Dry Salvages that “you cannot face it steadily,” the eternal intersection of past and future, of present and eternity.
But somewhere between the enslavement to time and the rarified life of a saint’s “Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender” is what Eliot calls “the unattended / Moment.” Our awareness of these moments, such as those times when “you are the music while the music lasts,” are predicated on two approaches to life: the belief that the eternal can be incarnate in the present (“past and future here conquered, and reconciled”), and the disciplines of prayer and worship (“We are only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying”). This is the distinction between using methods of divination to predict the future and engaging in prayer and worship to open oneself to the presence of eternity. Predicting the future is motivated by the conviction that our time is a ceaseless movement from past to future, the past always dying and the future holding the only possible meaning, always out of reach. Prayer and worship are motivated by the conviction that the eternal is always with us, that time moves backward and forward from a still point, “Where action were otherwise movement / Of that which is only moved / And has in it no source of movement.”
I think this is one of the reasons we sing in worship. When I sing and make music with others, I become the music while the music lasts, and I experience something of the reality of eternity in the present, even if it is only “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood.” I sing a song from the past, bringing the voices of the poet and composer, the voices who have sung it before, into my present as I project my voice into the future, as I strive with others to proclaim hope, described by hymn-writer Brian Wren as “wiser than despair.”* Praising God with voice and instrument has many times been my path back to faith, pulling me out of the deadening trap of past and future, and suspending me in a moment of stillness that is the mystery at the center of Eliot’s Four Quartets, an ascending and descending that is the same, a faring forward where I am freed from salvaging the past or grasping for the future because they are unified in me for one holy moment, as Eliot says in the third section of The Dry Salvages, “The moments of happiness – not the sense of well-being, / Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination.”
The awareness of eternity in our present, the mystery of Incarnation, is both a promise and a gift. It is not sought out of fear, but selflessness. It isn’t possessed as secret knowledge for an elite inner circle, but something that we share even past death, “If our temporal reversion nourish…The life of significant soil,” whether that is the perceived death of each moment or our physical death. What if the time past and time future in our liturgical calendar were telescoped into a single experience, and the mystery of incarnation was present in our Lenten disciplines of prayer and preparation? Rather than striving to become saints, what if we opened ourselves to become poets, grappling with the words, sentences, clauses, rhymes and rhythms of our lives to see the still point of the incarnation of eternity in our present, faithful that it will only be fully realized at our end?
At the conclusion of his poem, A World without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness, Richard Wilbur calls his soul to turn back from the rarified oases and mirages of a pure (and purely hypothetical) spiritual desert to the familiar landscape around him aglow with light:
Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.+
*“Bring Many Names,” verse 4, Brian Wren ©1989 Hope Publishing Company, Hymn 760 in Glory to God ©2013 Westminster John Knox Press
+“A World without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness,” from Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), in New and Collected Poems, Richard Wilbur ©1988 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pg. 283-284