Friday, February 19, 2010

Smaller and dryer than the will

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly

But merely vans to beat the air

The air which is now thoroughly small and dry

Smaller and dryer than the will

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
--T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

The image of a shriveled will, small and dry, is striking. The sense of agency is diminished, as though the speaker’s sense of selfhood is failing.

How often do we experience our sense of self, of agency, as weak? Certainly in bouts of depression or periods when we are so beaten down by life that we no longer “have it in us.”

Clinging is vain. Trying to save ourselves, we lose ourselves (I have it on good authority). Yet letting go is difficult, whether we are feeling (illusorily) omnipotent or utterly helpless. We thus have a prayer: “Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.”

Engagement with detachment.

The balance in which we have not withdrawn from life yet we are free of compulsive attachment to outcomes. We do what we ought and must without allowing anxiety to consume us. We do not control outcomes but we must act in accordance with our nature and the imperatives toward justice and compassion.

And, as noted at the beginning of Lent, we must let go.

Teach us to sit still.

Lady, pray for us in the great death and also now in the countless moments of our little deaths.

--the BB


it's margaret said...


Thank you.

author said...

What I like about this part of the poem is that it puts us in the place of prayer, dialogue.

It's been a long time since I read Eliot studiously; I was fortunate to have more than one class (English major) focus intensely on other Eliot poems, esp The Wasteland of course (that prof also did an intense focus on Hart Crane, The Bridge - joy). Thank you for what you're doing.

Jane R said...

Beautiful, Paul. Thank you. Interesting how many of us in our circle of friends instinctively headed for T.S. Eliot's poem for the day. I'm grateful for the particular focus you have offered. It is in keeping with some of what I am thinking and praying about, and I hope doing, this Lent. Blessings, my brother, on your Lenten journey, and thank you for feeding us here.

Paul said...

Thanks, Jane, and blessings on your journey.

I had decided early in the week to use Eliot's poems, primarily the Flour Quartets but I have not yet gotten there. When I saw so many people citing Eliot on Ash Wednesday I was stunned.

It would be interesting to explore the varied reasons why.