Putting Pain in Perspective: Reading T.S. Eliot During Lent

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.

littlegidding

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.

Little Gidding Quote

A Few Resources Related to T.S.Eliot and “The Four Quartets”

T.S. Eliot Reads his Four Quartets

Jeremy Irons Reads “The Four Quartets”

QU4RTETS – A Recent Visual and Musical Art Project Reflecting on “The Four Quartets”

QU4RTETS from Pilar Timpane on Vimeo.

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”