Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, part III
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.
(You can see the rest of T. S. Eliot's poem here.) A moment of reflection--literally. Looking back on oneself. At least, that's what I make of "the same shape" who is hindered by the one masked in hope-and-despair. Read more...
Sometimes despair is appropriate, other times hope. (I refer to the emotional state, not the external, objective future-hoped-for that is usually what is meant in the Bible where the word "hope" is used.) But when hope and despair are in combination, to me, that is a warning flag that says: POTENTIAL IDOLATRY TRAP.
God alone should have that kind of emotional attention from us. As the Christmas carol says of Bethlehem, "The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight."
Despair may seem a funny emotion to connect to God. Let me put it this way: when faced with something so momentous, so important, so ultimate, and learning that it is good, it seems to be natural for humans to react with a combination of hope ("Oh, would that it could be true!") and doubt ("No way. It's just a futile dream.") Part of the conversion process, of bringing new life into the dead human soul, is to conquer the despair or doubt, the reluctance to be "drawn in." Remember Griffle, the Black Dwarf in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle (at the end of the Narnia stories)? He was the one who refused to believe in Aslan. "No thanks. We've been fooled once, and we're not going to be fooled again." In fact, the title of the thirteenth chapter is How The Dwarfs Refused To Be Taken In.
Perhaps the "devil of the stairs" for Eliot--I think it is significant that it is all the stairs, not just the first stair--is this hurdle, this resistance that the dead human spirit puts up to the Good News of a living hope.
Despair is perhaps disarmed by the recognition that it doesn't matter what I think at all. My incredulity says nothing about the offer, just about my biography, the poverty of my experiences, the rip-offs I've suffered, the dashed hopes stirred by merely human saviors. Eliot's mood here reminds me of Judee Sill in "Crayon Angels":
Phony prophets stole the only light I knew
And the darkness softly screams
Holy visions disappear from my view
But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams
I wonder what it means?
Eliot ends this poem with a few words that I really like from the mass (which are based on Matthew 8:8--
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.
My unworthiness, and the persistence of God's offer, finally put me past the torturous tenterhooks of hope-and-despair. Hope is handfast with grace. "Strength beyond hope and despair, / Climbing the third stair."