Pilgrimage and Prayer in “Midwinter spring”: “Little Gidding” Movement 1

In our end is in our beginning…. I began this series on T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets with a piece entitled “Pause or Journey,” thinking about what the experience of Lent might be—either as a moment to pause and reflect more deeply on our faith and on one’s own physical, psychological, and

spiritual states, or as a journey that takes us along a path from the renunciations of Ash Wednesday to the joys of Easter. I implicitly admonished Eliot for thinking that the quintessential spiritual experience lay in the apprehension of a single static moment that contains both past and future in that present moment, and argued for a more dynamic metaphor—that of the journey.
Turns out, of course, that Eliot’s view of things is much more complicated: not an either-or, not “pause or journey,” but, like so many things, both-and. In the second and third sections of the first movement of his final Quartet, “Little Gidding,” Eliot invites the reader to think about two kinds of journey—quests really—one undertaken with a secular and mundane purpose, the other undertaken in the spirit of a true pilgrim.  Let’s look at the first section first.

“Midwinter spring”—line one of section one—is the seasonal equivalent metaphor for Eliot’s notion of the present as the moment between, and embodying, both past and future. “Midwinter spring” expresses a lovely paradox of weather, one that we all here in New Jersey have witnessed this past week, as snow blanketed crocuses that had already bloomed and narcissus that have poked up 3-4″ out of the ground.

flowers-in-snow 2Poetically, “midwinter spring” is an eco-Petrarchan love conceit, in which the natural world experiences at the same moment the deep cold of midwinter and the light and fire of new growth and a coming spring.  Just like the Petrarchan lover whose love consumed him in “icy fire” or he suffered from the “burning cold” of physical desire for the unattained, and unattainable, Beloved, so the “midwinter spring” metaphor captures the paradox of fire in ice, heat in cold, and life in death:

Midwinter spring is its own season…
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic,
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat…

In this season glows the ember of spiritual renewal; a “glow”

…more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind but a pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

This is spring… and not spring: ‘This is the spring time/But not in time’s covenant.” There is spring as a “time of year,” a season defined by time in the linear and astronomical senses, but not a season of the soul, which is defined here by a covenant, a pact between humankind and God, however attenuated that may be in this modern world.  In the seasonal “midwinter spring” there is “no earth smell/Or smell of living thing;” this is spring “Not in the scheme of generation,” that is, mere physical life.  At the end of this first section, Eliot poses a question:

Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

Where, he asks, is the season of warmth and heat and growth that is, at the same time, frozen, congealed and locked into that perfect moment? Cold and heat, zero and summer, death and life, locked mysteriously together as one?

How do we find that “timeless moment”? There are two possible paths, Eliot suggests, in the second and third sections of this movement.  The first is the sort of journey we make full of intention and purpose, but which leads to dead ends:

…And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.

This is the pointlessness of secular human seeking that we encountered in the second movement of “Dry Salvages.” We seek meaning in our quest, but the experience of the journey alters both the purpose and the meaning of whatever we think we’ve found, changed it, and rendered it, if not meaningless, then completely different from what originally were looking for.  This first sort of quest is specific, personal, and predictable:

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you be likely to come from…

But Eliot posits a second way to undertake the quest and by contrast expresses it in universalist language that distantly echoes the invitation to the Lord’s Supper (“… and they shall come from East and West, and North and South…”):

If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion.

For this quest, submission is required. The seeker’s job is to kneel and pray, not “…to verify,/Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/Or carry report. You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid.” Where has prayer been “valid”?  For Eliot, it is when the living apprehend the prayers, spoken or unspoken, of the faithful dead whose “communication… is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living…” and so partake in “the intersection of the timeless moment.” For Jesus, prayer was almost always a time apart, a time away from the crowds, the hubbub of ministry, the attention and distractions and questions of disciples.  His instructions about prayer were to go into a room, shut the door, and pray directly to God, not pray loudly and publicly for all to see and hear.

Where is prayer valid for us today? It may be, as “Four Quartets” suggests again and again, in a garden—the rose garden that keeps reappearing in the poem.  It may be in Gethsemene, in a moment between sacrament and arrest.  In Lent, as we make our pilgrimage of self-reflection and self-examination, prayer is surely in our hearts and, if we listen to the music of “Four Quartets,” it is in a timeless moment.

–David Redman


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