A podcast conversation about Lent and T.S. Eliot with my friend, Greg Richards. Greg is the Director of Vital University Ministries and the Elisha Leadership Initiative in San Antonio, Texas. He is currently overseeing ministries at five university campuses in San Antonio and surrounding areas. Subscribe to his podcast in ITunes.
The season of Lent provides an opportunity to be honest about pain…and to put it in perspective. At its best Lent is a communal and individual return to the waters of baptism, not a “self-help” fashioning of a better “me” or another chance to reinstate a list of failed New Year’s resolutions.
It is less about giving things up and more about self-denial. It is a refusal to turn a blind eye in favor of confronting the devastation around us. Convinced of our inability to fix things we kneel before the grace of God and are (in time) lifted up to participate in the healing.
I was recently reminded of the ways in which these Lenten themes are reflected in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. This year marks fifty years since his death. As a response, I have recently returned to his seminal collection that are together called “The Four Quartets.” These poems were written in the context of WWII and provide a jarring reflection on life during times of violence: mortality, prayer, the grace of God, and the nature of time.
My favorite poem contained in the collection is “Little Gidding.” I am particularly taken by the way in which Eliot understands prayer as a collapse of time and as a remedy to the limited nature of human perspective; common themes in many of Eliot’s writings. Fitting themes to ponder during this Lenten season.
To enter the space which prayer inhabits is to enter “God time.” A space where intellect and understanding yield to the mystery of it all and the wonder that all could be well, and the thought that all will be well when time and space collapse.
Eliot projects a keen sense that past, present, and future are somehow all present. One is invited to participate in this space through prayer, a foretaste of the “timelessness” that is to come, a ‘timelessness” this is already present in the form and presence of the ascended Christ. In some sense, to pray, is to step outside of time and space. This is one of the reasons that prayer is such an important part of Lent. Reflecting on “God time” helps us step outside of “our time” and its violence, hopelessness, and lack of cosmic perspective. For the Christian, it is a reminder that the cross swallows up time, “…trampling down death by death.”
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
As a reminder of this perspective, Eliot repeatedly references this phrase that is originally attributed to Julian of Norwich. Knowledge of this kind can only be known through death and love. It cannot be “attained” or summoned, but is known through, “…the purification of the motive, In the ground of our beseeching.” Ultimately, it is the, “…drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling…,” that will lead us through our own experiences of Cross and Resurrection, and back to the Garden. A thought worthy of reflection during this season.
A Few Resources Related to T.S.Eliot and “The Four Quartets”
T.S. Eliot Reads his Four Quartets
QU4RTETS – A Recent Visual and Musical Art Project Reflecting on “The Four Quartets”
Engaging Eliot: Four Quartets in Word, Color and Sound
A Discussion and Presentation of QU4RTETS Art Project at Duke University Chapel
*Skip to 1:03:10 to hear the Jeremy Begbie musical piece interspersed with readings from “The Four Quartets”
I will speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. If I consider myself anything more than this, behold You stand against me, and my sins bear witness to the truth which I cannot contradict. If I abase myself, however, if I humble myself to nothingness, if I shrink from all self-esteem and account myself as the dust which I am, Your grace will favor me, Your light will enshroud my heart, and all self-esteem, no matter how little, will sink in the depths of my nothingness to perish forever.
It is there You show me to myself — what I am, what I have been, and what I am coming to; for I am nothing and I did not know it. Left to myself, I am nothing but total weakness. But if You look upon me for an instant, I am at once made strong and filled with new joy. Great wonder it is that I, who of my own weight always sink to the depths, am so suddenly lifted up, and so graciously embraced by You.
It is Your love that does this, graciously upholding me, supporting me in so many necessities, guarding me from so many grave dangers, and snatching me, as I may truly say, from evils without number. Indeed, by loving myself badly I lost myself; by seeking only You and by truly loving You I have found both myself and You, and by that love I have reduced myself more profoundly to nothing. For You, O sweetest Lord, deal with me above all my merits and above all that I dare to hope or ask.
May You be blessed, my God, for although I am unworthy of any benefits, yet Your nobility and infinite goodness never cease to do good even for those who are ungrateful and far from You. Convert us to You, that we may be thankful, humble, and devout, for You are our salvation, our courage, and our strength.
-Thomas A Kempis (from Chapter 8 in The Imitation of Christ)
A new edition of the prayer book I put together for our congregation has been published. This edition covers every week from January 11th through April 4th. You can purchase a hard copy for yourself here. It only cost $5.81 per copy, so order one for yourself, family, and friends. Or download a free PDF copy for your tablet, phone, or computer.
The book contains Scripture readings, Psalms, and a prayer litany for each week up until Easter, as well as brief introductions to the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. The readings follow the reading cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that include the sermon passage for each week. Every Sunday our local congregation will be rallying around the Psalm of the week and the themes present in these readings. It is my prayer that this book is a easy way to access formative Christian practices and encourage common worship that forms through Scripture reading and the historic language of the Church. I should also add that you will find artwork to match the themes of each week’s readings.
There is SO much music out there. Here is a short list of the music that I listened to the most over the course of 2014.
I listened to a lot of Jazz this year, both live and and through the ‘ol earbuds. These two albums were (by far) my favorite. Both releases are reflective of high quality contemporary jazz folks who are rooted in the past, yet blazing new trails. Brian Blade is from NYC and Ambrose Akinmusire is from Oakland, CA. Both possess enough talent to cover all the land in-between the coasts.
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band – Landmarks
Ambrose Akinmusire – An Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
I kept coming back to Beck’s Morning Phase. Such a consistent mood and solid production. Gets better with every listen.
Beck – Morning Phase
Bread and butter.
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Of course…this. My favorite contemporary music album of the year. Actually, this may have been released in 2013. I don’t care. It’s still my top listen.
Son Lux – Lanterns
Sturgill Simpson’s late 2014 release is revolutionary. It is exactly as the album title and artwork suggests.
Metamodernism reflects “…mediations between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism.” Simpson’s artistic vision suggests that the future of pop art is absolutely rooted in the traditions of the past, without unnecessary nostalgia and sentimentality. Rock solid, meta, non-cliche, and subversively hedonistic. Anyone with a soft spot for Waylon Jennings will drool over this album.
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Classical and Choral
My main playlist from the Lenten Season 2014. Arvo Part’s Kanon Pokajanen is a choral cycle of repentance. Stunning.
Arvo Part – Kanon Pokajanen
John Tavener – Icon of Eros
Contemporary Alternative Classical
yMusic play cutting edge contemporary classical compositions. Seeing them live in 2014 was a concert highlight for my wife and I.
yMusic – Balance Problems
Stream at yMusic Bandcamp page
My most listened to Spotify playlist.