Thursday, February 18, 2010

These matters that with myself I too much discuss

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 blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

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
--T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
I doubt that Eliot could be anything but Anglo-Catholic, writing as he does.

The incarnational specificity one encounters in words such as "what is actual is actual only for one time/ And only for one place" echoes, for me, the occasional and specific nature of Anglican theology. We are not known for great generalities and systematic thinking but for bringing all our resources to bear on a specific question, a particular instance, a pastoral issue that is anything but abstract. We want to talk about real lives, not eternal principles, though we are eager to know what eternal principles have to do with real lives. We prefer "both/and" but, when forced to choose, tend to go with real lives.

We care more about our endangered siblings in Uganda than we do about discussions of "norms."

I remember my high school biology teacher, Mr. Moore, who on weekends taught Sunday school in a Methodist church, trying to get us past a concept of biological ideals. When I studied zoology with him he told us that one does not take a murine specimen and ask: "Is this mouse correct?" It simply is, and your concepts of "mouseness" must take it into account. There is no abstract mouse (pace Plato), only specific mice from which we must make generalizations.

Back to Eliot:

There is a sense of acceptance when he writes "I rejoice that things are as they are" and I love that phrase but the line does not end there. We have the "and" hanging at the end of the line, much as γαρ hangs at the end of the final verse of Mark's Gospel. [Those who do not wrestle with the Greek text of the NT may ignore that reference.]

"...[A]nd/ I renounce the blessèd face/ And renounce the voice...."

Eliot is not ready to respond, to have his encounter with the divine (or its channels). This is a poem written after his own conversion and it describes a process and a transformation. It is about turning, about metanoia, though it begins with no hope of turning. The speaker in the poem rejoices in "having to construct something/ Upon which to rejoice." He has chosen to rely on his own resources, in spite of not hoping to turn again. A bravura posture? Making the best of something already named as hopeless?

And yet...

"And pray to Got to have mercy upon us...."

There is the plea for that which we cannot create from within ourselves alone.

In that is hope.

Note: someone else shares thoughts on this poem. I commend Matt's undergraduate paper found here.

--the BB


author said...

okay sorry but now you've got me hooked... (final verse of Mark's gospel). I didn't get up and find a Greek book, I looked online and can't find the γαρ. I am trusting a kind person like you will tolerate obsessive passion ignited by recent attempts at exegesis. (One problem with growing up Arm. Orthodox with the kurapar in church -- bible is still a relatively new exploration for me. I'm blogging to learn myself, really.)
- Janine again

Paul said...

Mark's Gospel originally ended at 16:8 (and they told no one anything because they were afraid). Blackout. Curtain. Very dramatic and forcing the audience to stop short and rethink everything. Of course, if they did not eventually tell somebody something, we would not be hearing the story at all.

In the Greek the last two words are "ephobounto gar," gar being a particle in a following position that carries the freight of the "for" or "because." It is unusual in that position, but not unknown in ancient literature. Nonetheless, it is very striking. You expect more. The mind demands more. The author has led us to puzzle over this. And the only way forward is back, for Jesus has promised to be waiting in Galilee where Mark began.

author said...

Oh thanks, Paul.... there is a note in the Orthodox Study Bible now that I check it out but it didn't point out the Greek ending :-)

When you look at these things in Greek, they are heartbreaking sometimes, esp. in their simplicity.

author said...

a follow-up:
Nick and I were discussing this γαρ, and we decided that in colloquial Greek speech it doesn't sound that weird or odd (to Greek ears) :-)

Paul said...

It is a common word, certainly. The only thing striking about it in this particular context is ending not only a sentence but a narrative with it and the larger sentence itself. Imagine writing the very first Gospel and ending it with " they told no one for they were afraid."