Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (I)

First Movement

Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.

I live in time, bracketed by a past I can neither change nor retrieve and a future that beckons, disappoints, and terrifies. I am never satisfied with the present, never content. I am torn apart in time by time, fragmented.

Years ago I read Jean Pierre de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The secret to holiness and contentment, he writes, is abandonment to the divine will given in the present moment: “To find contentment in the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will in the succession of all the things to be done and suffered which make up the duty to the present moment.” I can see the logic, but only rarely have I been able to practice such deep surrender, and even then it was never surrender. After all these years as a Christian believer and priest, I remain an ascetical failure. How odd, ironic, to find myself in the Orthodox Church.  I am not drawn to Mt Athos.

What does Eliot mean when he writes that the past and present are present in the future, the future contained in the past?

Eliot was an Anglo-Catholic churchman who attended Mass faithfully. I wonder if the Mass he knew was similar to the Solemn High Mass I knew at St Paul’s Church, K Street, back in the mid-70s—a liturgy filled with chant, incense, and the beauty of holiness. In the eucharistic sacrifice, past, present, and future are reconciled and made whole. The Lamb slain before the foundation of the world gives himself to his people in his Body and Blood. The Kingdom of God is made present. The union of past and future in the present is powerfully expressed in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming.

The Church commemorates the sacrifice of Calvary and remembers the return of Christ in glory.

If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.

Unredeemable time. Perhaps this is my greatest fear—that the gospel will prove false, and my life, my time becomes unredeemable.

I think of my son Aaron. He reached a point in his life when he could see no future. Time for him had become unredeemable, a frozen block of ice that could not be melted, would not be melted. When time is unredeemable, there is only hopelessness and despair.

I miss Aaron grievously. The tormenting questions remain. What could I have said or done differently? How could I have missed the signs? Suicide condemns the bereaved to the frozen, inalterable past.

In the ninth circle of the Inferno Dante pictures Satan and his fellow reprobate as frozen in ice. Is this what it means for all time to be “eternally present”? Past and future collapse into an immutable present.

Only God can redeem time and rhyme past and future.

What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation. / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.

It is so easy to live in regret, to be overwhelmed and possessed by regret, to be obsessed by “what might have been.” If only I had made different choices; if only I had spoken different words or not spoken any words; if only I had been more decisive; if only had I been more patient. So many wrong decisions. So many losses. So many failures and sins. So many people hurt. So many disappointments. So much suffering. And now the future which once seemed so full of possibilities constricts into an eternal present. How different this perditional present is from the sacrament of the present moment.

Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened /Into the rose-garden. My words echo / Thus, in your mind. But to what purpose / Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves / I do not know.

Haunting lines. The poet invites me into the rose-garden—or what was once a rose-garden. Thomas Howard suggests that the rose-garden may intimate Eden. I recall this citation from one of Tolkien’s letters: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”

But Eliot may be suggesting something else. Our memory of the garden is distorted, false. We walk down the passage we did not take. We walk through the door we never opened. Our lives are governed by regret and delusion, by a past that we have invented. And so the poet announces that by his words he intends to disturb the potpourri of rose-petals. Their scent permeates my consciousness. But they are dead. What false-past will Eliot’s words reveal to me, if I follow him into my garden?

Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? / Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, / Round the corner. Through the first gate, / Into our first world, shall we follow / The deception of the thrush? Into our first world. / There they were, dignified, invisible, / Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves, / In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air, / And the bird called, in response to / The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery, / And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

The thrush sings to me. “Find them, find them.” Find who? what? What is the first world? Eden? My childhood? I read the lines quickly. The poet tells me that the birdsong is deceptive. Is this the danger of nostalgia, nostalgia for a past constituted by false memory? Nostalgia is seductive, as the singing of the thrush.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting. / So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,/ Along the empty alley, into the box circle, / To look down into the drained pool. / Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, / And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light, / And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. / Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.


I still do not know who or what “they” are. The pool is empty, yet the sunlight transfigures the pool as filled with water. Lotus flowers (Buddhist symbol of enlightenment?) rise to the surface. “They” stand behind us, reflected in the pool. But reflections never show things as they really are. There is always distortion. But a cloud blocks the sun, and the vision is lost. Barrenness once again revealed.

The poet has invited us on a journey to find the truth of our existence.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, / Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. / Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.

And now the very bird that has seductively enticed us into the garden cries out a warning. The thrush is right. I cannot bear to see my life as it really is. I cannot bear to know my life as death. The pond is dry, so dry. It’s all a burnt-down ruin. The spirits of the dead stand around me, watching, haunting.

Have I ever made a true confession, spoken my sins without distortion? Is the past too horrible to remember as it really was, and so I have to soften it, alter it, romanticize it? I resist the truth, resist it with all of my being. My defenses are wide and high and deep. But what do I fear?

“God,” wrote Rudolf Bultmann, “is the the insecurity of the future.” Is it God I fear?  I am Adam who hides in the bracken, ashamed for my nakedness. My life is overwhelmed by fragmentation. My time is broken. I cannot make myself whole. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.

Christ is my end, the future who is present in every moment. Only he can heal the divisions of time.

(Go to second movement)

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6 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (I)

  1. brian says:

    Heartfelt and interesting ruminations. Zizioulas talks about “remembering the future,” though perhaps it is better to see our situation as one in which the eschatological, eternal reality is always already mysteriously connected to every moment of our temporal existences. Time that was fully set in stone would be a horror. Somehow, time will be healed — from our perspective. Eternally, it may already and always be healed. And yet, paradoxically, our eternal destiny is a result of history and time.

    Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity has some good thoughts on this. The first few chapters are dense and difficult, but the pay-off is worth the effort. I also think Stratford Caldecott’s chapter on Eckhart in The Radiance of Being is helpful in trying to think (the admittedly nearly impossible to think) relation between time and eternity.

    My last year of graduate school at the University of Dallas, an undergraduate named Branwen committed suicide. I did not know her, but I have continued to pray for her — about fifteen years now. I wrestle with melancholia all the time. Sensitive souls are often more imperilled by the ways of this world. I am certain of God’s love for Aaron . . .


  2. John says:

    May God bless you in your grief. I am so very very sorry.


  3. JessicaHof says:

    No, we cannot bear too much reality, but the past, with all its sorrows and pain will be redeemed in God’s love in time future, when all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.


  4. jrj1701 says:

    Father bless,
    This struggle weighs heavy on those of us who dare to love unselfishly. How I long for the healing power of God for all of us, how I have regretted putting others through this hell that I witness you going through and that I also go through for friends have made that seemingly final decision. Unlike you, Mount Athos calls to me, and my ego fears this call, yet I know that there I might be able to come to realize Truth, control my sinful desires that only want pale imitations of His glory. I wish I had the abilities of Saint John Chrysostom, so that I could alleviate the pain of others, yet I am just this silly hillbilly that struggles to silence the lies of evil. My prayers are with you and I greatly respect you for sharing you struggle.


  5. Kevin Allen says:

    Love the commentary and the heart to delve in! Four Quartets is my all-time favorite poem. Memory eternal, Aaron.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have been thinking lately, “what might have been” – an unfallen world (no Fall being necessary) – “and what has been” – the whole horror-filled history of creation, human history, each personal history – “point to one end, which is always present” – indeed, Christ, the Son Incarnate, and (because of “what has been”), Him crucified, and, as only proper “end”, He in each, and each in Him (whether that come to pass or not).


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