UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In the Beginning II

In the Beginning II

Last Sunday we took our first plunge into the liquid depths of John, Beloved of Christ Jesus. Unfortunately, (for you), what started out as a twenty-minute sermon stretched effortlessly into forty minutes without even breathing hard, (for me), and I still haven't said all I want to say about John 1:1-2:

"1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
 2The same was in the beginning with God."


Last week we contemplated the miracle of spirit transduced into flesh, and pondered some of the implications relevant to our own material existence--our material existence as it was necessarily affected by the incarnation of God in the body of Jesus.

Today we take a different tack, and consider an issue resonantly brought up in the great T.S. Eliot poem, Ash Wednesday: the issue of redemption. In the course of my Sunday presentations, I have featured many classic sermons and lectures, including pieces by Martin Luther, George MacDonald, Rudolf Steiner, C.S. Lewis, et al.; but this is the first time I have suggested that a poem written by a (technically) secular poet should constitute an appropriate subject for a worship service.

The fact is that, as I have said before, beautiful artworks convey spiritual energy into the physical as effectively as any prayer; an artwork is in fact a prayer, made by the artist, to bring his audience closer to something essentially true. Whether the artist attaches religious designations to the elements of the artwork is really neither here nor there, and is, moreover, secondary to the main point. The fact is that a contemplation of the infinite, in any form, is as good a prayer as can be prayed. The poet, in particular, is just one step away from the philosopher, and the philosopher is just one step away from the priest. A poem composed by such a priest-poet is sure to bottom line at some significant point that can be labeled as frankly religious.

His poem Ash Wednesday came at a significant time in T.S. Eliot's spiritual life; it was a written at a time, (and commemorates a time), when he was just coming out of a period of agnosticism and doubt, into a new personal era of faith and belief. It is not only a beautiful work of art, it is a deeply intimate spiritual testimony.

[Sidebar from Wikipedia:
"Conversion to Anglicanism and British citizenship
On June 29, 1927 Eliot converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism, and in November that year he took British citizenship. He became a warden of his parish church, Saint Stephen's, Gloucester Road, London, and a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He specifically identified as Anglo-Catholic, proclaiming himself "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion." About thirty years later Eliot commented on his religious views that he combined "a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.""


Thus, this particular Eliot poem is not secular at all--it is famous for not being secular--it is referred to, (as we shall see below), as Eliot's "conversion poem." The work impresses the reader with the significance of the Word by painting a bleak picture of what life is like without it. Let's take it that far for now.

Here is the article from Wikipedia:

" Ash Wednesday (poem)
Ash Wednesday is the first long poem written by T. S. Eliot after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, it deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith acquires it. Sometimes referred to as Eliot's "conversion poem," it is richly but ambiguously allusive, and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. It is a poem of penitence, near despair, and hope. Its title derives from the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, during which a sign of the cross is made on the forehead of the penitent, a reminder of transitoriness and sinfulness.

Ash Wednesday,” Eliot’s first major poem written after his conversion to Christianity, focuses more on struggle and doubt than on belief; it straddles the line between secular and Christian poetry but opens the door for his later “Christian” poems. He shows the need for God, his lack of hope for everything in the world, and how “unworthy” we are when we come to God in our natural sinful state. Eliot does not doubt God, rather his own ability to respond to Him.

Many critics were particularly enthusiastic about it. Edwin Muir maintained that it is one of the most moving poems Eliot wrote, and perhaps the "most perfect," though it was not well-received by everyone. The poem's groundwork of orthodox Christianity discomfited many of the more secular literati.

T. S. Eliot: Ash Wednesday, Part Five:
"V
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;"


[Sidebar: I hate to interrupt so soon, but I must clarify a crucial point: these first few words are really the reason we are hearing this sermon, because they present the central dichotomy of the poem, which is this: we know that the Word is out there, even if it is an inarticulate potential; we know that the Word is created for the world, that the Word creates the world; but guilt, born of an acute awareness of our depraved character, our flesh, sullies the experience of the Word with anxiety and despair. The poem is about how T.S. eliot works through this problem. Let's start again:

"V
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;

And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.


O my people."


[Sidebar: notice how the reference to apple seeds brings us back to the Garden of Eden, Paradise lost; what a powerful image--to imagine Eve spitting out the seeds of the Tree of Knowledge that have withered in her very mouth. It is as if the poet is sitting on a fence and watching all this; the poet is enacting a ceremonial review of the Fall, meanwhile tucked into some in-between place which separates expression from acceptance. Or is it transitioning (or better, transducing) between expression and acceptance?]

Back to Wikipedia:

"A Reading of Part Five of
Ash Wednesday
Sencourt suggests that "it is only the total effect of Ash-Wednesday which is capable of systematic exposition." If this is indeed the case, then what Kirk believes to be the essential thrust of the poem proves helpful:

"Only by experiencing afresh the reality that once brought forth the old symbols can modern man regain faith, 'the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen.'" Just that expression anew of transcendent experience was Eliot's achievement in Ash-Wednesday."

Indeed Ash-Wednesday turned many in its generation toward Christianity (and away from communism) since the poem "made it possible to believe in Christian insights—and yet to remain within the pale of modern intellectuality." Eliot himself was the paragon of such a posture.

A man of genuine intellectual power and broad learning might believe in dogma, it was clear; more important, he might experience something of the transcendent, and might express that experience in a mingling of old symbols and new. The intellectual public, or some part of that public, was moved."


[Sidebar: This sentence is of particular relevance in my case. As you will remember, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, the worst possible environment in which a true disciple of Jesus could find himself. Everything was Hellfire, and "Because the Bible says so," translation: "Because I say so," translation: "Because my mother says so." The living personality of Jesus never cast a shadow on my parents' doorstep, only the dogma that was come down from several generations of midwestern farmers, whose theology was expressed in language and logic that was JUST TOO STUPID for me. The idea in the preceding paragraph that T.S. Eliot "might experience something of the transcendent, and might express that experience in a mingling of old symbols and new," is the sentence I needed to read when I was 12. The tragedy of my youth is that I did not even suspect of the possibility of an INTELLIGENT CHRISTIANITY until I was 25. The idea that, "The intellectual public, or some part of that public, was moved," is of tremendous comfort to me--it means that somewhere, somehow MY work may some day be appreciated for its prayerful resonance.]

"In the fifth section we have the following basic outline.

1. The introductory stanza has behind it the gospel of John 1: 1-14 and Lancelot Andrewes' nativity sermon of 1611. Its substance is at the core of the poem: "it is an assertion of the truth of Christ as the Word, an assertion that this is the Reality even if one has not brought oneself to acknowledge it fully."

"And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word."


[Sidebar: remember from last week, we read a section of the referred to sermon of 1611. We focussed on the section in which Andrewes makes clear that FLESH is the lowest, the most disgustingly inadequate form in existence, and how could the Christ even bear to go near it? Here is the section:

"Besides, from the flesh, as from Eve, came the beginning of transgression, longing after the forbidden fruit, refused the Word quite; so, of all other, least likely to be taken. The Word not refusing it, the rest have good hope.

But there is a kind of necessity to use the term flesh. If He had said man, man might be taken for a person. He took no person, but our nature He took. Flesh is no person but nature only, and so best expresseth it. And if soul, it might have been taken, as if He took not the flesh but mediante anima (by means of the soul); but so He did not but as immediately and as soon the flesh as the soul, in one instant both.

Yet one more. It will not be amiss to tell you; the word that is Hebrew for flesh the same is also Hebrew for good tidings - as we call it, the Gospel; sure, not without the Holy Spirit so dispensing it. There could be no other meaning but that some incarnation, or making flesh, should be generally good news for the whole world.  To let us know this good tidings is come to pass He tells us, the Word is now become flesh."


These words come very close to a summation of the entire Ash Wednesday poem: flesh makes the apprehension of the Word difficult, but Jesus's descent into the body offers us the hope of redemption in His blood.

There is another side note I wanted to stick in here about the bargaining aspect of some of the Medieval and Renaissance religious texts. You will notice how Andrewes paints a grim view of the flesh, representing it as the "beginning of transgression", and then, through its acceptance through Jesus Christ, it becomes the "good news". Well there are similar passages elsewhere. Here is a section from the text to the Requiem mass:

"Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the cause of thy way:
lest thou lose me in that day.

Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
on the cross of suffering bought me.
shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Seeking me, thou sat tired:
thou redeemed [me] having suffered the Cross:
let not so much hardship be lost."


In other words, "Jesus thank God that I'm such a sinner, because without me You'd have nobody to save, and then what good would You be?"]

Back to Ash Wednesday:

"2. In the next stanza, Eliot asks:

"Where shall the word be found, where will the word Resound?"


The answer is seemingly nowhere:

"Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land."



[Sidebar: the question of silence is a very fetching one. You may remember in The Screwtape Letters Screwtape describes the acoustic nature of Hell as being dominated by one vast noise. Indeed, if the tohu va-vohu (the whirling madness of chaos) were to be presented in a movie, I'm sure the sound track would consist of an endless swirling rush of white noise. Indeed, the Word, created by God "in the beginning" came out of chaos, and brought its own silence with it.]

Back to Ash Wednesday:

"3. For those who reject the word out right, "for those who walk in darkness" there is neither a place of grace nor a time to rejoice; life is still a waste land.

"For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.""


Who would deny the voice, who would make himself deaf to the Word? Who would choose noise over silence, darkness over daylight? Only the ego-driven self, the false face that cannot face the real face. For the petty ego there is no time for anything but the looking glass in which is reflected only the confusion of chaos.

So, how, you ask, is this a poem about redemption? Well, as usual with T.S. Eliot, you have to wait some time for the clouds to lift--in this case, all the way until the last line of the poem. But the sense of the possibility of redemption, of redemption waiting just round the corner, like an epiphany waiting to transpire--this sense of impending redemption runs in and out of every tired line in the entire poem. For instance, take the last lines of the Fifth section:

"The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice."


These are not just doom and gloom words, they suggest the POSSIBILITY of rejoicing by those who DO NOT DENY the voice. The voice is mute in the poem, but stands ready to speak just on the fringes of the poem. Furthermore, the final ending is more than a prayer, it is a supplication--a supplication based on the faith that prayer will be answered and the poet will be delivered:

"Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee."


"And let my cry come unto thee." That sounds like faith to me. Faith in the ability of the Word made flesh to relieve the cruel barrenness of the world, and to come together with the voice that gave the first cry--the cry that created the world.

But let's go back to some of the earlier imagery that is of interest:

"And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word."


The idea of whirling is associated with deep waters, the vortex, the face of the deep. In Jewish tradition, the term tohu va-vohu refers to the featureless desert of nothingness, all undifferentiated swirling chaos; indeed, the chaos of entropy can only be described as a whirling confusion. It is a picture of the universe unbanged, as in Genesis 1:1:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."


Now, to my way of imagining, the first change that the Word wrought on the face of the deep, that undifferentiated waste and void, was DIRECTION--movement toward some point outside the mind of God. To be separate from God, yet part of God, was the mystery we contemplated last week, and it still is a major preoccupation when we consider the ebb and flow of many waters circulating around the silent word--the word, as yet unspoken. The shone in the darkness that, just a moment before was a black silent potential for being. Thus, as I hinted at above, the saving grace of the creator is waiting at the edges of the poem, always on the verge of becoming. Does this tell us anything about our own spiritual life?

In the following verses, Eliot underlines the desperation of the faith not yet delivered into the world by epiphanic experience:

"If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;"


In particular, these words seem to cry out:

John 1:3

"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."


The word within the world and for the world, has indeed MADE the world--so the mere fact of our worldly existence implies the word's existence--and with its existence the hope that it may deliver us back into the infinite out of which this finitude has sprung.


Here at the end of the first section, T.S. Eliot flaunts his atheism, and blares his excuses for it:

"Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice"


The surprising turn at the end, "I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice" almost makes the same statement I made earlier:

"The word within the world and for the world, has indeed MADE the world--so the mere fact of our worldly existence implies the word's existence--and with its existence the hope that it may deliver us by giving back the infinite out of which this finitude has sprung."


The protagonist of the poem sees that the seed for his redemption is contained in the logic structure of the Word--the Word cannot exist without us, and we cannot exist without the word. Thus, as he goes on, struggling with ego, and the baggage the Word drags into his verbal consciousness, he prays once again for mercy:

"And pray to God to have mercy upon us

And pray that I may forget

These matters that with myself I too much discuss

Too much explain

Because I do not hope to turn again

Let these words answer

For what is done, not to be done again

May the judgement not be too heavy upon us"


We see from these last two lines,

"For what is done, not to be done again

May the judgement not be too heavy upon us",


that redemption is not free, that we have commit to a life wherein we reject sinful acts, meanwhile admitting that we CANNOT avoid sin, we can only beg forgiveness for it.

Here is a reminder from last week, a quote taken from Joseph Campbell's Masks of Eternity:

"And when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist, you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest. That is the epiphany. And that is what might in religious terms be thought of as the all-informing Christ principle coming through."

 
Perhaps I go too far, but it seems to me that there is a not-so-obvious reason for the intensity of the proclaimed suffering and despair that pervades the T.S. Eliot poem: with the Christ Consciousness lurking in the wings, always hinting that there is balm in Gilead, maybe the purpose of these cries of supplication is to enhance the desperate tone of the supplications, thereby super-charging the reaching-out-to-God dynamic in the poem. This intensification of expression may be thought of as an AESTHETIC effect, that is, MADE UP, in the sense of a kind of hyper-symbolic resonance. The creation of ART out of a prayer to God, transforms the often informal aspect of prayer into CEREMONY. This is significant. If you take into account these words from above,

"Eliot does not doubt God, rather his own ability to respond to Him."


it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Ash Wednesday poem is a CEREMONY OF SUPPLICATION, whose reason for being is to prepare the supplicant for the coming of the Word.

You may recall my very first sermon as Director of Worship at Basin Bible Church suggested that ceremony and formality did much to dignify the religious rites, imbuing them with the associated radiance of inherited tradition. Most religious practices involve ceremonies that enact the cosmic mysteries for our contemplation in the outer world. Furthermore, many traditional practices for the solemnization of holy days, include the idea of fasting, and the larger issue of sacrifice. Clearly, T.S. Eliot is focusing on the sacrifice, the more to enjoy the descent of spirit into the heart of the man who had faith enough to stick it out through the bad times, through the waste time of indecision and doubt. The barren times made fruitless and empty by the tyranny of ego that forbids and forbids and forbids the surrender to the enfolding arms of faith affirmed.

When we imagine the Word made flesh, we have to include, in our considerations, every material manifestation of Reason, Discourse, Mind, etc., that we can think of. Then we must formalize our thinking and solemnize it with ceremony. The ceremony of supplication must go hand in hand with the feeling of supplication. Therefore, the dark images and forlorn utterances of the protagonist of Ash Wednesday find their reason for being in the depth of his need for redemption, his thirst for living water.

Last week we mentioned that the Word is the force that holds the universe together. Clearly, this is one blessing the protagonist of Ash Wednesday is praying for. There is a poem by Yeats I would like to read that bears on the topic at hand:

       
"THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
   
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
   
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
   
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
   
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"


Notice how this poem reiterates many of the images we have discussed already today: the center that cannot hold (the tohu-va-vohu), the desert, the ceremony of innocence, and the slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. I think that these two poems taken together make a potent statement about the necessity of spirit, the presence of spirit, the evocation of spirit, and the ultimate redemption through spirit. These are all things we need to have circulating in our consciousnesses, as we labor to bear our own God-created spirit into the world of men.

Let us pray: Jesus hear our prayer. Deliver us from the darkness that clouds every virtue that is not sanctified by Divine Intelligence. Enlighten our minds with heaven's rays, and lead us in the paths of righteousness for your NAME's sake. Let us name you in every thought and deed, and let us hear the Word with ever-opening ears. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment