This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
In 1930, three years after his 1927 conversion to Christianity, poet T.S. Eliot published Ash Wednesday. Like his more celebrated work The Waste Land (which I believe is actually a Christian poem as well), this one is extremely evocative and endlessly difficult. Where a contemporary American poet, Robert Frost, wrote exceptionally clear poems layered with literal and figurative meaning, Eliot mostly wrote works that defy any sort of absolute interpretation. In Ash Wednesday, he clearly alludes to various elements in a broader cultural vocabulary, but these words do not easily add up to form totally coherent sentences.
At the top of the first and last sections of the poem, we encounter repeated lines, which themselves repeat with variations.
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
Written after his “turn” or conversion to high-church Anglicanism, the first line can be read to indicate that Eliot does not want to turn again, to turn away the object of his faith. In that sense, the poem begins (and ends) with a bit of pious orthodoxy, yet the second line cuts back on it, lopping off three words to give us a sentence of despair: “Although I do not hope.” The third line suggests a lack of hope for change. Given that the poem is named for the first day of the penitential season of Lent, which meant more to Eliot than to people of my tradition, we might read these lines as a statement of faith but at the same time a confession of a fleshly, sinful nature.
Throughout this work, Eliot embraces the difficulty of human existence. As spiritual creatures, we strive upward, but as flesh-bound creatures, we know ourselves and that our inclination seems to always return downward. We might hope to turn toward God, but we know that such turning will ever be imperfect. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
That battle between spirit and flesh is what creates the “tension between dying and birth,” which we saw above. The beauty of our faith is not that we get it right or that we ever manage to win that battle. The beauty is that while we live in that time of tension, while we struggle with an inability (on one level) to hope, we know that on another level, hope is alive and invincible.
How do we win? We don’t. I do not hope to turn, but I don’t have to turn, for I have been turned. Like the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea, I don’t have to fight. Instead, I can know that, allowing God to fight for me, I can be delivered from the “Egyptians” who afflict me.
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
There is the answer. We don’t have to answer all the questions so long as we do not mock ourselves with self-delusion. We don’t have to act, except to act by sitting still. Eliot reminds us, as we reflect on our sin, to care and not to care. This isn’t him simply playing with words. We are indeed to care and not to care. We must care about our sin but not care about our inability to triumph over it. We must care that we fall short of God’s holiness but not care that we are not God.
In the end, the final line of the poem is our best prayer:
And let my cry come unto Thee.