A Musing on Divine Love

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I’m grateful to introduce you to Jennifer Kennedy, our guest writer for the day. It took a bit of urging for Jennifer to share her thoughts with you. I’m so very glad she did.

I’m quite ambivalent about posting this – so uncomfortable that I searched for another poem about which to write. I looked in three other collections. There were many evocative and beautiful verses.  But no other shook me as this one has. Four days after I read the poem, I saw this passage from Chapter 9 in Breath for the Bones:

“Tame it, make it predictable and palatable, overlay it with a veneer of orthodox respectability, eradicate its irony and wit, control its passion and force, and maybe, maybe, it will be allowed to slip inside the sanctuary and be shown into a back pew. The sterility of such a domesticated art shows us the dire results of ultimate control.”

So I find myself without defense or reason for withholding it from this forum – save my discomfort in doing so. And the level to which it has disturbed me has no bearing upon the truth of it.

I was thumbing through a collection of Shaw poetry, Listen to the Green, and came across this one. I read it once. Then again. And yet again.

Bride

The thin smooth eggshell of her
rigid , indrawn by a private gravity –
her convex surface
offers no toe-hold for analysis.
But perhaps the perfect smile –
the self-assured sheen –
her insularity’s bright
white carapace that shuns another’s touch
ask of you:
Is it her coolness or her cowardice
(or are they one) that closes in –
ward on itself
denying entrance?
The probes of God’s sharp grace
his bruising mouth (and yours)
threaten to broach her brittleness.
And heaven’s breath, hot,
see how she shrinks from it
on her ice palace
as from all passion that seeks
center
in her hidden hollowness.

Not knowing she’s destined for shell
shock
vainly she shields her vulnerable vacuum –
postpones the breaking and entering –
love’s emptying of
her chilly emptiness.

-Luci Shaw

After the first reading – I guessed it was a metaphor for Christ and the Church – and perhaps it is. But I also saw that irrepressible, irresistible Grace – the one that compelled the “kicking, struggling” Lewis to his knees, the Hound of Heaven pursuing an individual soul.  But, now – here, in the most (I cannot this of a more discreet way to put this) sexually charged images. I held my breath and my face burned.  I hastily flipped the book over to the back cover – the one with all the testimonials – looking for some validation, wanting to ask someone, “Is it ok to read this?” Somewhere amid the words from Christianity Today and Madeleine L’Engle was this: “There are some poems that make you catch your breath. This happens over and over when I read [Luci Shaw’s] poetry. – Ruth Bell Graham.” If Mrs. Graham could find herself breathless and keep reading, then I felt I was in good company.

As I pondered the verse, my mind seized upon an image of Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. I suppose it was my psyche’s way of finding some comfort zone – an image of passion I could look upon without dying of embarrassment. It’s such a magnificent work – emotion and energy and mythical magic captured in a moment. I imagine it’s what that bride feels beneath her cool immaculate exterior – fleeing in terror at the real possibility of being possessed and wholly claimed. She’d rather be wrapped forever in a column of wood, unmoved and unmoving but for her waving branches and the fluttering of her green and shining tresses – safe from the consuming and consummating love of a god.

I had a chance to actually see this statue – almost. I was in Rome with a small group of humanities students from Milligan. We walked up to the Galleria Borghese – and were stunned to find it closed indefinitely for a sweeping renovation. My art teacher kicked the corrugated steel barricade in frustration and then said some words I cannot repeat.  The object of our desire was within, and we were hopelessly without.

I still cannot read this poem without feeling unsettled. It’s sometimes frightening to see the God you worship in a startling way you never considered before. To be honest, I will never view the expression “the God-shaped void in your soul” the same again. But I have this strange idea that divine love is very different from what we mortals can perceive. It comes to us in fractals – split into components we can comprehend – storge, eros, phileo, agape – love in different hues. But within its Source they combine and flame with the white-hot intensity of a star – a passion that no steel barricade or bright white carapace can shield – a Love to overcome and complete us. I cannot adequately explain this, but I do believe this – that He loves and desires us THAT much.

But my cheeks are still burning. Maybe yours are, too. If so, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. But you’re in good company.

Jennifer Kennedy finds interest in just about everything in the wide world (except perhaps vector calculus and heavy metal music.) But she claims expertise only as a motherfluffer, baby wrangler, and lactation diva in the wee hours. When she’s not pishing in the hedgerows or practicing Bach cantatas on YouTube to annoy the three men in her life, she loves reading and writing about such wonders as skink tails, elven folk, winged horses, and canoeing in the lost forests of the Lord God bird.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up with what we’ve read here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Week of October 6: Chp 11-12



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Pressing Into the Quiet

quietThe following guest post was written by Kelly Keller. Kelly is a transplanted Massachusetts native who this year celebrates a full decade living in Charlotte, NC. When she’s not homeschooling her five kids (four boys, one girl), Kelly enjoys live music, baseball, writing, reading great books, and traveling with her best friend and husband, David. If you don’t want to hear her blathering on about her upcoming trip to the UK this fall, you should probably just avoid her from now on.

I live a loud life.

It’s not loud in the sense of enthusiasm or passion. There are things I am quite passionate about — just ask me — but I don’t wear flashy clothing or make thunderous, sweeping statements about politics or other issues.

It’s just loud here. In our home we have five active children between the ages of 6 and 13. They learn, they fight, they make explosion sounds, and my name is the one they call most often. This position is a privilege, I am aware.

But when we’re discussing reflection, quiet, and what Luci Shaw in Breath for the Bones calls “active readiness,” I immediately view it as a fight. When there are needs to be addressed at every turn, it’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking.

No matter what the “noise” is in your life, that sentence right there may be the understatement of the century. It’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking when the roommate insists on the twenty-four hour news channel….when the boss demands long hours in a drab office…when people fill your schedule for all good, but all time-consuming and noisy, needs.

But “cultivate” is exactly what we must do. Like tilling the soil, cultivation of quiet is sometimes a hard-won battle. We must exert ourselves to break through the unyielding soil. It requires more than a little effort in a culture that wants to fill our days with sound.

The culture. Yes, it is true, the culture is at fault. But so are we — after all, we make the culture. As Ms. Shaw rightly points out:

“But so many are afraid of silence and of being alone. They wonder, What if nothing happens? What if God ignores me? Or what if he isn’t there? But, in gradual steps, and given some simple tools, people can begin to experience contemplation for themselves and discover that it is transformative. And this transformation (as well as the waiting) also informs — always — the place where our creative work is done. For artists, this combination of discipline and listening-receiving is a true cornerstone.” (p.79)

Shaw later says,

“…passivity has no place in the life of art or of Christian spirituality.” (81)

She uses the term “active readiness” to describe the role of an artist or individual in a waiting time. The phrase rang a bell in me, because it reminded me of Charlotte Mason’s concept of “masterly inactivity.” As a teacher, sometimes I press into a child to gain knowledge, but other times I must retreat and allow time and the Holy Spirit to enlighten. This retreat is not passive, but active. The teacher is backing away consciously. Always the Spirit-led result is better than a reckless, human straining towards mastery.

It doesn’t need to be in quiet solitude that these moments happen — although those moments help the process. It is a cultivation of our minds and spirits to recognize God’s work in our lives and how He is unfolding our days before us. That realization happens just as often in the noise of my family as it does in a solitary place. It’s a matter of my heart and the effort I’m taking to listen.

But like I said before, the quiet times certainly help. We are finite creatures. We can’t clear our heads and come to good perspective if we are immersed in the bedlam our culture makes available to us twenty-four hours a day.

This perspective that this is an exercise is a helpful one. While the world often wants to look at time of quiet as leisure, Shaw casts that time for Christians, and artists in particular, in a light of important effort and discipline.

Perhaps I would more passionately pursue it if I saw it that way. A little less rolling over for a few more minutes of sleep. A little less media. A little more quiet.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Week 2: Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
This week: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Catch up (or read ahead)
Sept 29: Chp 8-10
Oct 6: Chp 11-12



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Tell Me a Story

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I’m grateful to share this guest post, written by Jen Rose Yokel, with you. In addition to being one of the original members of Greener Trees Reads, Jen is a writer, radio nerd, music lover, and hopeless literature addict, who grew up in the weird state of Florida where wild reptiles roam free. She writes for The Rabbit Room, fancies herself a poet and has been blogging since she begged an Internet acquaintance for a LiveJournal invite in 2002. Currently, she is settling into married life with her husband Chris in Fall River, MA. She doesn’t particularly enjoy writing about herself in third person, but she would like you to know that she really digs Apple products, vinyl records, good coffee, and spelunking used bookstores.

From the moment I stepped inside, something felt different. Different from any church experience I’d had before. I took the copy of what we called a bulletin in my Baptist heritage. Instead it was a list of readings, instructions, recitations.

I was about to experience my first Anglican liturgy.

It felt foreign, and yet, completely at home. There were no lights, no worship band on stage. The priest wore robes, walked to the middle of the church, read Scripture. We stood and knelt and took communion from a common cup. The sermon was short, lively, but the heart of the service was hearing the Word and taking the bread and wine.

It was otherworldly, beautiful in its calm reverence. Funny considering just a decade before I’d craved a more energetic experience than my memories of little Southern churches with a liturgy of hard pews and “Turn to page 320 and sing the first, third, and fourth verses.” I wanted movement, excitement, and everything else seemed dead. Now, I craved quiet, because everything else seemed fake.

My church journey has taken a number of turns, including a couple of charismatic side trips, many rock concert worship experiences, and now, a tiny city church that walks a line between Baptist and liturgical. If I think long enough, every one of them have their flaws. If I go into them with openness and appreciation, every one of them have their beauties.

Cliché as it seems, there’s some truth to the bumper sticker-ish advice: if you find the perfect church, run, because you’re going to ruin it. But what if all of us, together, in our fragmented quirky ways, are all simply telling the greater Story?

This isn’t to excuse harmful theology, but I wonder sometimes if despite all our grasping, searching, and learning, in the end we will always struggle to apprehend “pure truth,” always strain against the confines of logic, always fall short of grasping reality.

Maybe this is why, when asked hard questions about blinding truth, Jesus, the incarnation of the God who wove the universe and history, and continues telling the tale into a new creation, would say, “Let me tell you a story…”

As Luci Shaw tells it in Chapter 3 of Breath for the Bones

“I am reminded of an afternoon when my youngest daughter came home from high school, saying in disgust, ‘Well, today we dissected a grasshopper.’ As if that’s any way to discover what a grasshopper is.

We know the truth about grasshoppers not from a scatter of small body parts under a scalpel on a lab table, but from seeing them arcing up from the long, hot grass in a summer field…” (43)

I could chart the bits a of grasshopper for you and tell you what it does, or I could point to a real one, strong legs propelling it through the garden before you can blink. Dissection kills.

I can tell you what I think I know about God through the stories, grasp for an explanation, cross-reference and dole out doctrine, or I could let you read them and know a little something about Jesus through the way he talked about prodigals and treasures, through the way he put on a towel and washed the grime from his friends’ feet on his last night before dying on earth, before waking from death and changing everything.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to take a systematic approach. Great evil has been done by misinterpreting Scripture, and great good has been done for our understanding and inspiration. There is nothing wrong with memorizing a verse that gives you strength, feeling a flash of insight, or connecting the lines between stories, poems, and letters to see the structure of the Gospel.

What is a problem though is when we fail to recognize the limits of our language and understanding. “Truth is a touchy subject, a daunting word,” says Shaw. “It demands our serious thought… and we’re still baffled by it.” (40) You can’t face infinite God in limited flesh without being mystified.

Rather than letting our differences divide us into camps of black and white, perhaps it’s a better thing to let them give colors and shades to our understanding, to see the thrum of life below the surface with a “baptized imagination.” We seek truth. Our metaphors break down. They bump us up against contradictions and paradox, ask us to believe God’s people are oaks of righteousness and withering grass. Still we go on, together catching fleeting glimpses and trying to describe what a grasshopper is.

Shaw describes faith as “a large, rambling house… added onto over the years.” What happens inside makes it remarkable:

“Inside the building lives a diverse community, an extended family of people variously occupied — cooking, cleaning, studying, conversing, teaching, giving advice,receiving advice, listening, rehearsing, resting, making love, dreaming, creating. They are young and old, male and female, single and married, widowed and divorced, inexperienced and mature, naive and wise. They are school children, parents, laborers, teachers, businesspeople, scholars, artists.

Moving among them, talking and working with them, is and ordinary-looking man; it is the Christ, the One who lends the house its personal warmth, its structure, its creative center, its vision, its reason for being.” (x)

Not a specific kind of church — not in stained glass, icons, fog machines, or a rented movie theater — but a community. And our imaginations unlock the rooms, let us wander into each other’s space where we are free to ask, “tell me a story.”

Where do you see your room in the “house of faith”? What have you learned from people in other rooms?

How does seeing Scripture as a story rather than a theology text alter your understanding?

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Last week: Intro, Chp 1-2
This week:  Chp 3-5
Sept 15: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Chp 8-10
Sept 29: Chp 11-12



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On Tiptoe

child on tiptoe

When my daughter was a toddler, she would stand on tiptoe beside the kitchen counter. Eyes twinkling with expectation and chubby fingers gripping the edge, she would strain to see what culinary adventure was unfolding. Her habit developed through time. It was reinforced with every loaf of bread kneaded, cake baked, and carrot chopped. She didn’t want to miss out on the action. Or the leftover cake batter on the beater.

Time passed, and the plump toddler legs grew long and thin. Words were spoken more clearly. Clumsy waddles were replaced by graceful pirouettes. One bright spring day, I was preparing dinner and felt a warm arm wrap around my waist. Beside me stood my girl. Tall enough to easily see the surface of the counter, yet still standing on tiptoe. The gesture had become habit. Expectation had become a posture.

Next week, our brood will be making the journey to Duke to attend Engaging Eliot: Four Quartets in Word, Sound, and Color. The exhibition will be a combination of music, art, and poetry – a perfect storm of the best kind. I’ve been a fan of T.S. Eliot since high school and have more recently become an admirer of the writings and artwork of Makoto Fujimura.  Despite my anticipation of the event, I’m very aware that I’ll be in a bit “over my head.” My degree is in business, not English. My experience of fine art was one of dancing on stage, not of painting on canvas. Although I’ve been reading The Art of T.S. Eliot with a group of folks, I’m probably in the bottom quarter of the class in regard to poetic experience and knowledge.  Or more likely the remedial group. Yet I look forward to gleaning what I can during the exhibition – even if it’s a stretch for me. You might say I’m standing on my tiptoes.

Just as the evening will stretch me, it is even more true for my children. They will most likely “understand” only a fraction of what they will see and hear – just a sliver of the goodness that will be present. Yet a sliver of beauty refracts as it passes through the eyes and finds its way to the human soul. It may seem foolish to take those so young to an evening that is “out of their reach.” But they are learning to stand on their tiptoes. To strain and catch a glimpse of something wonderful and worthy of experiencing. My deep hope is that through time, the gesture of standing on tiptoe will become more deeply ingrained. That the gesture of expectation will become a more permanent posture.

Beauty and truth surround us. At times, we see it clearly without effort.

But if we’re willing to stretch,
To live with an expectant and teachable heart,
To believe that more goodness exists than that which is directly in front of us,

We may be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.

**************************

In discussing the exhibition with my children, I found myself struggling to convey the beauty and power of collaboration between the artists, musician, and (unbeknownst to him) poet. I floundered while attempting to describe the complementary nature of abstract and realistic art.  On a whim, I asked the children to listen to one of my favorite pieces of music and paint in response. The only parameter given was that they were to paint what they felt. What stirred in their imaginations and emotions. More abstract and less concrete. I was asking them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

Last Train Home by Pat Metheny

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No doubt,
We’ll be surprised
By the joy discovered
While living life on tiptoe.



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The Gospel According to Eliot

words words words

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another. Today’s guest post was written by Carolyn Givens.

Carolyn Clare Givens is a freelance writer and editor. She works at Cairn University and edits and publishes the University’s magazine. Carolyn lives outside of Philadelphia. Visit her blog to discover her thoughts on everything from art, music, and writing to pie and international soccer.   

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 3: Poetic Communication

 “Words, words, words.”
          –Hamlet (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

 “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
          –The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (John 1:14)

As one who works in words as my medium, I’ve always been a little bit offended by the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I want to argue with it, point to writers who say more in a single sentence than I think anyone could get from staring at one of Monet’s Water Lilies for an hour. Words are my lifeblood, my oxygen. They are my method; my way of expressing the ideas, feelings, and experiences I want to share.

When the pieces all come together, words are the strongest and most poetic means I can think of to express ideas. When the pieces all come together. When the sentence is “right,” as T.S. Eliot puts it,

                         (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
-Little Gidding, V.217-223

And yet, time and again throughout my life, I’ve found them to be useless as a means of expression: nothing but words, and words upon words, straining, cracking, and sometimes breaking under the burden, decaying with imprecision (Eliot, Burnt Norton, V.149-152). They cannot do what I wish them to do. There is, within me, something that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. By the time I have found a way to put it into words, it is passed, or finished, or changed:

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of  l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
-East Coker, V.173-178

T.S. Eliot knows what I mean, even if I’m having trouble communicating it to anyone else.

And in spite of all this, Eliot chooses to write. He attempts to use words to communicate. Not only that, but in Four Quartets Eliot attempts to communicate ideas which are spiritual, deep, broad, and resonant. He compounds his own struggles, reaching – as those of us too timid to try it might say – perhaps higher than he should. Helen Gardner puts it this way: “He is not intentionally writing obscurely in order to mystify, or to restrict his audience to a few like-minded persons with a special training, but is treating a subject of extreme complexity, which is constantly eluding formulation in words. Mr. Eliot is, in his own words, ‘occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist’” (p. 57). Later, Gardner continues: “He is writing of religious experience, of how the mind comes to discover religious truth: truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” (p. 61).

And here is the crux of it – for Christians are people of the Word. Our “religious experience” is shaped by the Word. The “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” is text: words.

Gardner points to a dilemma facing the religious poet: “This predicament is glanced at in the Greek quotation from Heraclitus, which stands as one of the epigraphs to Four Quartets, and which I have put at the head of this chapter: ‘Although the Word is common to all, most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own.’ If the poet speaks from his private wisdom, how can his readers each with their own private wisdoms find in him ‘the Word which is common to all’?” (p. 61). She points out that this problem is not just that of the religious poet, but it is a problem of communication in the modern era: mankind no longer speaks the same language. “The reading public is far larger, the output of printed matter incomparably greater, and the content of education has expanded so enormously that there is now no general cultural tradition to which the poet can refer or be referred. The divisions do not only run between those who are trained in the scientific disciplines and those trained in the humanities; but between science and science and between one branch of the humanities and another” (p. 69).

(In 2013, we chuckle reading those lines. Helen Gardner, writing in 1949, could not have imagined the public would carry scores of libraries in their pockets; that historic events would be live-blogged; that 140 characters would be considered great thought, but not a quarter of the population would read Virgil.)

Gardner examines, in the third chapter of her book, the ways in which T.S. Eliot overcomes his predicament with cautious use of religious words and his choice of simple and common symbols. The wordsmith finds a way to express the “truth which interprets for us our whole experience of life” without using words and symbols that would only confuse his audience. “It is not the poet’s business to make us believe what he believes, but to make us believe that he believes” (p. 68).

Gardner points out how, in The Dry Salvages, Eliot even takes words that typically have Christian significance and steps them back, using them in common speech before bringing out their religious use. It seems to be a sound method, based upon all we have learned so far about his audience. Oughtn’t we to contextualize the Gospel, after all? Shouldn’t we learn to speak the languages of science and mathematics and agriculture and art and business? Are we not encouraged to “become all things to all men, so that by any means we might save some?” (1 Cor. 9:22). Is this not the heart of evangelism?

But there is one theological word which Eliot does not reappropriate. Gardner writes that he uses it “without preparation, but with extraordinary force” in the fifth movement of The Dry Salvages: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (V.215).

Incarnation. The Word become flesh.

Flesh. Even in English it has a slightly disgusting sound, as if we’re trying to spit it out of our mouths. In Greek it is σαρκος (sarkos), with its hissing ends and harsh center. Flesh. It rots. It decays. Flesh.

Strange as it may seem, for the people of the Word there’s no getting away from the Incarnation. It is the center point of history; it is the moment when the Speaking Creator chooses a medium beyond words. But without it all the words in the world are “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5).

There is Someone that cannot be contained in letters and sounds. Yet in Him, all words find meaning.

We are a people of the Word limited by language. We are the children of a Speaking God. So we continue to wrestle: How do we proceed? How do we communicate the God of the Universe? How do we join Eliot in his “perpetual effort towards communication, a desire to speak plainly”? (p. 73). Is it even worth the effort?

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
East Coker, V.189

 

 ***********

Questions for you to consider:

1. How do the questions and ideas raised above play out for the Christian artist whose medium is not words? In what ways do these artists face the same struggle to communicate as the poet? What solutions are there to this dilemma?

2. What other “languages” do the people you interact with on a daily basis “speak”? How can you present the message of the Gospel in ways that they will hear and understand?

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Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope
Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Thoughts from Week 2: You are the Music

 



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You are the Music

music swirling notes

In the upcoming weeks, a few folks from the Greener Trees community will be sharing their personal responses to The Art of T.S. Eliot. I’m grateful for the opportunity to peer through the eyes of others. We have so much to learn from one another.

The following post was written by Chris Yokel, who is a poet, musician, and writer on art, creativity, and music. Chris lives in Massachusetts.  Drop by and visit his blog to explore his writings and music.

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 2: The Music of the Four Quartets

You are a creature bound by time. This is probably the most important element governing your life, and yet it is one of the most mysterious. Do any of us understand it? We attempt to measure it out, with our seconds, minutes, hours, and years. We try to manage it with our day-planners and calendar apps and alarms. But in the end (which is an indicator of time), it is as mysterious as the One who created it.

Once upon time, there was a time when there was no time. And then Spirit moved, rapah in the Hebrew, vibrated, like the string of a violin struck by a bow. And time began playing the symphony of its Author, moving, flowing in melody. And in the image of its Maker, seeds sprouted, pushed through earth, climbed to the sun, brought forth fruit, faded, and sprouted again. Children were born, opened their eyes and arms to the world, grew into maturity, fell in love, and begat their own children. Spring gathered its strength into the virility of summer, which matured into fall and then settled into the sleep of winter, until awakened again. Rhythm, recurrence, pattern, without exactness, because no child is a copy of their parent, and no autumn like the one before it.

And yet within these notes of time there seems to be something that is not of time. We are constantly trying to freeze time, especially in our art. The photographer, the painter, the sculptor are all combatants of time. But all of us, “artistic” or not, at certain points want to just suspend the moment, when the end of the day sets the trees on fire, or when the golden hour of summer casts our dancing children in angelic haze. There is something eternal in the heart of time, for its Mover is timeless.

It is the musician alone who embraces time, for without it, music could not exist. Music is the art of time. As Roger Scruton says in The Aesthetics of Music:

“In musical experience, we are confronted with time: not just events in time, but time itself, as it were, spread out for our contemplation as space is spread out before us in the visual field. . . . Music is not bound by time’s arrow, but lingers by the way, takes backward steps, skips ahead, and sets the pace that it requires.”

Music plays with time, and yet in it, too, is something of the eternal. What stills us in the sound of a Bach cello suite, or makes us weep at Ralph Vaughan William’s “A Lark Ascending”? It is something more than the mere combination of wood, metal, hair, and the principles of physics. The Spirit vibrates once again, echoing down through time to us. An intersection of time and the timeless.

It is in this vein, with the ear of the musician and the poet, that T.S. Eliot meditates upon this mysterious intersection in his Four Quartets. He begins in Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.

Or in East Coker: “In my beginning is my end.”

Or in Little Gidding: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment/Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Variations on a theme, rhythm and recurrence. But more than just addressing time directly, Eliot develops his ideas through symbols, as Helen Gardner points out: “The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life” (44).

As Gardner identifies them, Burt Norton is about air, East Coker is about earth, The Dry Salvages is about water, and Little Gidding is about fire. She concludes: “We could then say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem” (45)

I would argue that the quintessence is the Spirit, for the Spirit is seen in all these elements. The Spirit is air, wind, the ruah who breathes life into us, and blows where He will. The Spirit’s medium is earth, bringing us from dust and back to dust again. The Spirit is water, purifying, cleansing, raining down and refreshing us, making the wasteland bloom, the river within us. And finally the Spirit is fire, empowering us, purifying us, cleansing us, redeeming us from fire by fire.

It is also in the Spirit that time and the timeless intersect. Douglas Jones says in “Music as Spirit” “Rhythm and tempo lie at the heart of musical expression, and history lies at the heart of the Spirit’s work.” The Spirit’s work is time, and in time, yet the Spirit is eternal. And because the Spirit is in us, creatures of time, we who are in time have eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and thus we feel the sense of the divine and the timeless at moments in our lives, as Eliot himself explores in the Quartets.

But finally, the Spirit, taking the elements and taking time, makes a melody of it all. Eliot constantly talks about “pattern”, “movement”, and “dance” in the Four Quartets. In doing so he evokes an idea that we are not that familiar with in our modern scientific age, but that the medievals and ancients believed. C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image refers to it as the harmony of the spheres. They believed that “space is not dark, so neither is it silent. If our ears were opened we should perceive, as Henryson puts it, ‘every planet in his proper sphere/In moving makand (sic) harmony and sound’”. The Spirit is the conductor, the elements are the obedient music. The Spirit is the still point, the creation is the dance. And as Eliot says in Burt Norton:

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Now, this is all very interesting and a bit academic, but what does it mean for us, creatures of time? Is Eliot telling us anything useful? It is at this point that I am struck by Gardner’s last lines in the chapter:

“The whole poem in its unity declares more eloquently than any single line or passage that truth is not the final answer to a calculation, nor the last stage of an argument, nor something told us once and for all, which we spend the rest of our life proving by example. The subject of Four Quartets is the truth which is inseparable from the way and the life in which we find it” (56).

That is, the Four Quartets accomplishes what any piece of good art should accomplish, which should be to make us live more clearly, more deeply, and more truly. Eliot ends both the Quartets and Little Gidding with these lines: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That which began with God will return back to Him again. What began in the garden will end in the garden-city. In our beginning is our end.

And so I think the questions Eliot would leave us with are these: “How shall we live in time in light of the timeless? How shall we keep in step with the dance of the Spirit?”

In the power of the Music-Maker, “You are the music, while the music lasts.”  Make it sing. Make it dance.

 

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Thoughts from Week 1: On Shoulders of Giants
Overview of plan (and link to Eliot reading Four Quartets): From Telescope to Microscope


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On Shoulders of Giants

T. S. Eliot

The Art of T.S. Eliot – Week 1

What can I possibly learn from T.S. Eliot, and why does it matter?

To some, the asking of the question itself is offensive. The answers are obvious.

To others, considering such a question is a waste of time. There are more important questions to be asked, after all. “Given the economy, will our finances stretch far enough?” “What if the medical test results bring bad news?” “Is there any chance for healing of that painfully damaged relationship?” Or perhaps most commonly, “How can I rearrange the upcoming week to grant some relief from the frantic pace of life?”

With such “real world” problems, could it possibly be worth the time invested to consider the poetic works of one man who spent most of his life in academia ?

Over the next few weeks, a group of us will be reading through Helen Gardner’s The Art of T.S. Eliot. Please consider joining us. The schedule is as follows:

Jan 7 – I. Auditory Imagination
Jan 14 – II. The Music of the Four Quartets
Jan 21 – III. Poetic Communication
Jan 28 – IV. The Dry Season
Feb 4 – V. The Time of Tension
Feb 11 – VI. The Language of Drama
Feb 18 – VII. The Approach to Meaning

My hope is that in reading along, or in following written responses to each chapter, we may all discover that exploring Eliot’s Four Quartets is worthy of the time and energy invested. Here are a few thoughts to consider from the first chapter:

“The dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” Gardner, p.9

All good art tells the truth about life. It gives us fresh eyes through which we can view ourselves, others, our world, and our Maker. We leave our experience of that art with a greater awareness of what it means to be human. I’d suggest that’s time well invested.

~ Our own tendency toward law over grace is exposed when we watch Les Miserables unfold on stage.

~ We’re given a rich portrait of the One who came to save us, as we read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

~ The battle between darkness and light within the world (as well as within each of us) is illuminated in the paintings of Rembrandt.

Eliot was an astute student of the classics. He drew from and built upon the works of those who had come before him including Dante, Milton, and French Symbolists. The Four Quartets, often considered his most significant work, marks a shift in Eliot’s development as a poet.

“From now on, he will try to speak in his own voice, which will express himself with all his limitations, and not try to escape those limitations by imitating other poets.” Gardner, p.20

Eliot found freedom, not in disregarding the past, but in learning from it. He took the knowledge and experienced gained from those who came before him and built upon it. In doing so, he found his own limitations. Those limitations became the turning point from which his most prolific works were created. In Isaac Newton’s words, Eliot was “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”

So are we.

In considering the past, most of us err on one side of the spectrum or the other.

Some tend to disregard the past.  We don’t see value in doing the work of exploring the classics, understanding prior civilizations, or even considering the impact that our individual family’s history has upon the present. Our focus is on securing a better future. We miss the lessons learned and the truths revealed through the ages.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can get stuck in the past. We spend our days living vicariously through the lives of others.  We may appreciate literature, history, and art, yet are content to be solely consumers. We take without giving back. We live a life of imitation rather than creativity.

A creative life is a messy life. It learns from the past, then moves forward to give to others in unique, specific ways.

If you’re joining us in reading The Art of T.S. Eliot, here are a few questions to consider:

“The Dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” p. 9

1. What are some practical applications of that statement? Can you think of other laws in the arts (music, dance, painting) to which this principle applies?

 

“Any attempt to analyze the diction of a passage must murder to dissect, for the life of a passage is in its rhythm.” p. 15

2. In what other areas of life would this statement apply? Where do we murder when we dissect (rather than appreciating in context and as a whole work)? Why do you think our tendency is often to dissect rather than know fully?

 

“Avoidance of the obvious is not the mark of the highest originality or of the genuinely bold artist.” p. 16

3. What does that mean to you? What examples come to mind?

 

For further reading:

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (in particular, the chapter Pentecost)
Walking Backwards Into the Future
by Makoto Fujimura
Q Ideas: Learning for the Common Good by Byron Borger

 

 

 



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