The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Monday, March 14, 2011

Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, part I



Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive toward such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

T. S. Eliot's big poem is my poetry meditation this Lent. (Something about this season makes me want to access my inner poet.) I know pretty much nothing about Mr. Eliot, except that I like this poem. And it just happens that it has six parts, so for an exercise I am going to comment on one part a week.
Read more...A caveat: this isn't going to be some deep, high-powered commentary or critique. I'm just going to offer some personal reactions. Hey, I'm on dialup here.

"Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope"--this is a quote, of course, from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, the only Shakespeare I have almost memorized. The Bard finds relief from his self-despite by thinking of some Beloved (human, not divine, it would seem): "Haply, I think on thee..." "thy sweet love remembered brings such wealth brings"--but for Eliot, it's not going to be that easy.

This first installment of his long poem seems to be about negation. The only "positive" thing is perhaps ironic: "I rejoice that things are as they are / And I renounce the blessèd face / And renounce the voice" from which he goes on to say:
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

The construction of something upon which to rejoice--his poverty forces him to rejoice in his negations, but stops short of falling into the power of Nothing as Screwtape wrote to Wormwood in Screwtape Letter #12. He does so by prayer, or at least, by words about prayer.

The prayers described are well known to me. It's the only antidote to the condition I sometimes find myself in, "too much in my own head." God have mercy on me, help me forget: forget myself, and my obsession with my own reflections masquerading as "ideas." Later Eliot goes on to say, "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." That's a great prayer. It says, "God, my passions, thoughts, feelings, need to be brought under Your dominion, lest they run riot with my life. I do not know how to forget, nor how to sit still, unless You teach me."

Jane Siberry had a great line in one of her songs from long ago, "You Don't Need":
and a bird I don't recall
called, 'don't recall,'
called, 'don't recall.'
Forgiving and forgetting come from God, or else they are just tricks we play on ourselves.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Noah here.

You touch on something that Paul says Christ did in Phil. 2:7

"Rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness."

This is the ESV, but I recall some translations using the phrase "he emptied himself."

That's what you're describing, it seems. Instead of staring in the metaphorical mirror of our mind, we should look to the cross, the source of all.

Seems to me that God uses His Law to do this. The Law does empty the self: It empties the self of all justification, all meaning, all worth, and all comfort. Under the glare of the Law, men are nothing.

Then the Gospel lifts it up.

Your plea seems to be for God to apply His Hammer (the Law) to your heart. I like that plea. We Lutherans live with this curious problem of becoming numb to the Law-Gospel dynamic. Our flesh can make us pooh-pooh the Law because we know the Gospel. If I had to guess, something similar is happening to you. Happens to all of us.

The devil loves to use the good news to cheapen the Law. I doubt there's a solution, but it's a problem we're always fighting.

" *yawn* I a poor miserable sinner... yeah... I know I am, but I'm forgiven." Cheap Law = Cheap grace and vice versa. No one's to blame but ourselves.

May God's Law redirect your gaze to the source of forgiveness and (blessed) forgetfulness. There is such a thing, I think.

Mar 16, 2011, 1:42:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Fremer said...

Hi Noah. Good thoughts!
"Your plea seems to be for God to apply His Hammer (the Law) to your heart." Hmmm. I see it more as growth in the theology of the cross. A plea that where I see negation happening in my life--where doors seem to be slamming shut--where the glass seems ever to be even more than half empty--my plea is that God would help me to see His hand at work in it, to see or at least believe that He is still Lord. That this is not happening apart from His notice. That He Who sees the sparrow fall is also watching what's happening with me. And not only watching, but working.
These are the kind of things I hear Eliot saying, which of course says more about me than about him. But whether the "malady" is pity-partying or cheap grace, the answer is the same, either case, and you are absolutely right. Stop looking at yourself, direct your gaze away from self, and toward Jesus.
I hear Eliot longing for the ability to say to God, as C.S.Lewis did, "The pains you give me are more precious than / All other gains." Although I am not sure whether Lewis was talking to God in "As The Ruin Falls," or to Joy, his dying wife.

Mar 16, 2011, 4:03:00 PM  

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