The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme
T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I took a class entirely on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. I don’t remember now what made me so eager, with so many subjects to cover and so many classes available, to spend ten weeks on one poet. But I do remember being very eager. It was winter quarter, and we came to Ash Wednesday–Eliot’s poetic announcement of his conversation to Anglo-Catholic Christianity–shortly before its liturgical namesake. The professor said that, while he didn’t want to encourage us to play the religious voyeur–I recall that phrase quite precisely–we could see this ritual event in action in the coming week if we wished. I’d been lingering around the edge of the church long enough to feel justified in going to Rockefeller Chapel to see and hear what the poem was referencing. I left with ashes on my forehead and the distinct thought, “Well, I guess this means I’m a Christian.”
Looking again at Eliot’s poem, I am struck–in a way I wasn’t back in the days of my own journey to the church–that he seemed to experience so little joy in his conversion. “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn,” the poem opens, echoing a line from 13th century Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti. I’ve never read a biography of Eliot and my reading in the scholarship on his work is very sparse–only at the University of Chicago would a professor assign 60 pages of modernist poetry for a quarter and literally no secondary sources. But it has the sound of a man falling in love with the faith, thought, and worship of Christian Europe just as he sees that civilization losing its power. The way in which Eliot weaves together Scriptural quotations, liturgical allusions, and medieval literature was at the same time very modern and very nostalgic, even reactionary. Yet the poem seems to imagine a future for the literary and religious tradition Eliot is embracing, a future that comes “through a bright cloud of tears” shed in repenting of Modernity and all its empty promises–a future in which “the ancient rhyme” will be restored in “a new verse.”
Many things in Eliot’s poetry can easily be held up to scorn today. The anti-Semitism, the rococo high-churchism, and the confusion of racial history with religious tradition have all aged rather poorly, it can well be argued. And yet what is astonishing about Eliot’s conversion is that he may have, almost single-handedly, prolonged the living presence of Christian faith in English-language literature for decades. By reaching the summit of secular letters and then adopting as his chief theme the central symbols of Christianity, he really did manage to restore “the ancient rhyme” in that part of the Christian world over which he had some intellectual influence. I used to visit a very high Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish in Chicago and I always thought of it as the T.S. Eliot Memorial Chapel.
It is an entirely normal Christian pastime to wonder whether our church and our culture have one more “turning” left in them. Our great parents and teachers in the faith have left us not only their highest thoughts and purest words of devotion, but also their universal conviction that the world had grown old, that its force was spent, that only the swift and final intervention of God could stop its slide into chaos and oblivion. And it is hard to say with any assurance that they were, in fact, wrong to believe this. We are accustomed to looking ahead with trepidation at a churchly future rife with narcissistic theology, empty pews, and disgraceful clothing choices. It would do us some good to turn around, as it were, and look back at the highly unlikely Christian past we have inherited. How many times has the church been on the verge of extinction? How many times has its demise been confidently predicted by foes and friends alike? How many times have we needed, perhaps without knowing it, someone who could synthesize the words and symbols of the faith for a new world–a world with new and urgent questions it did not think to see answered among us? And indeed, how often has God granted us just such voices, people with the gift of casting the ancient rhyme in a new verse? One thinks of Athanasius explaining the doctrine of Incarnation with his poetic and theologically dangerous image of a city visited by a king, with the result that the city of human bodily nature is held to be worthy of all honor.
I hope I have not placed too great a burden on Mr. Eliot’s slender shoulders. I simply happen to have followed him to church because he expressed Christianity in a way that I apparently needed to hear it expressed. I’m sure my own expression of Christian faith would utterly embarrass him, but that is the purgatory in which all who have influence over posterity must smolder. I remember him now because the next turning is being prepared not in churchwide offices and not in pastoral studies or parish committee meetings, valuable and necessary as those things may be. The next turning, if it comes, will come from people who will astonish the world–and probably us as well–with the unexpected force of the words, ideas, and worship that God has kept alive among us.