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t.s. eliot and the meaning of lent

March 14, 2011

Life is a passage, a movement. Winter is ending, spring is upon us. The days are getting longer. The church marks this passage with seasons of Lent and Easter, seasons of death and rebirth, penance and celebration.

One of the richest resources in understanding this time of passage is T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). Eliot's life was itself a passage from skepticism to belief, from cynicism to the embrace of divine mystery. Two of his most important poems, "The Waste Land" and "Ash Wednesday", based upon Lenten themes, narrate his spiritual journey.

In "The Waste Land", Eliot invokes the prophet Ezekiel in describing modern existence: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish? Son of Man/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only /A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/And the dead trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water."

We live in a time of hopelessness, of "broken images". There is no shelter, no life -giving water.

Around us, however, are glimpses of hope. "Only/There is shadow under this red rock,/(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/And I will show you something that is different from either/Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Lent is a confrontation with mortality, but it can also lead us into the experience of the death of Christ. A spirtuality informed by Lent insists that we wrestle with the inevitability of our own deaths, in light of the death of Christ, as we journey toward Easter.

In the midst of the wasteland, we become aware that we are on the road to Emmaus: "Who is the third who walks beside you?/ When I count, there are only you and I together/ But when I look ahead up the white road/ There is always another one walking beside you."

The experience of failure and disappointment is sometimes understood as a crisis of religious faith. In the Gospels, however, it is precisely the moment when Christ appears to the disciples. Only as we deny ourselves, only in the awareness of our human limitations, Eliot insists, are we open to the "peace that surpasses understanding."

"Ash Wednesday" illustrates Eliot's movement from a tentative faith toward a deep commitment. This journey takes place in the desert, where one is without support systems. In the desert, the mystics confronted the demonic; in the desert experiences of our lives we discover who we are before God.

The season of Lent calls us to self-examination and to a desire for God. "Ash Wednesday" closes with Eliot's prayer: "Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood/Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still/Even among these rocks,/Our peace in His will/And even among these rocks/Sister, mother/And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,/Suffer me not to be separated/And let my cry come unto Thee."

(With gratitude to Joseph Flora of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who taught a Sunday School class on T.S. Eliot when I was a Divinity Student working with United Methodist students there, and introduced me Eliot's poetry and spiritual life.)


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