Between the title of the poem and the first line of poety, Eliot has inserted two quotations from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus: οῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν (“although Reason is common to all, most people live as though they had wisdom of their own”) and ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (“the way up and the way down are one and the same”). The significance of the epigraph emerges in the third movement of “Burnt Norton.”
Here is a place of disaffection / Time before and time after / In a dim light: neither daylight / Investing form with lucid stillness / Turning shadow into transient beauty / With slow rotation suggesting permanence / Nor darkness to purify the soul / Emptying the sensual with deprivation / Cleansing affection from the temporal.
We are in Eliotean wasteland now. A place of flickering twilight, imprisoned in the monotony of sequential time, deprived of both the brightness of day, which might reveal the transient beauties of the world, and the opaqueness of night, which might provide the purification necessary for the soul.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker / Over the strained time-ridden faces / Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration / Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind / That blows before and after time, / Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs / Time before and time after. / Eructation of unhealthy souls / Into the faded air, the torpid / Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London, / Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney, Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here / Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
We are in the gloam of the London Underground amidst the walking dead. Are we descending in the elevator? standing on the platform? sitting on the train? It doesn’t matter. Everywhere we look we see the diseased and torpid, swollen in their creeping damnation. Does the poet count himself among these hollow souls? I do not know, but I do not hear contempt in his words, only diagnosis. This is who we are—thoughtless, superficial, sick, constantly texting on our cell phones, purblindlessly traveling the human subway.
This is who I am—twittering and blogging, blogging and twittering, with an occasional email exchange with my wife. When one is “religious,” it’s easy to think that one is living at a deeper level than others. The truth is that we too often use our faith to hide from the sin that grips our hearts and degrades our lives. We do not even notice our foul breath and periodic eructation.
After Aaron died I found that I could hardly bear to be around other people. I have no patience for easy words of cheap consolation. I had never known this intensity of grief. I was devastated beyond words. Aaron’s death did not move me into a mode of spiritual doubt—that had occurred only a few years earlier. Doubt has always been a powerful dimension of my spiritual life, yet I did not find myself confronting God in anger and accusation. The anger and accusation have been directed solely towards myself and the psychologist to whom I entrusted Aaron’s care. What might I have done to save my son? How could the counselor have not seen the signs?
I have been profoundly changed, though others may not perceive the difference. I suspect that the homily I preached at Aaron’s funeral will be my last. I have no wisdom to offer. I crave silence … yet not too much silence. I still need the noise to protect me from the sorrow. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
Descend lower, descend only / Into the world of perpetual solitude, / World not world, but that which is not world, / Internal darkness, deprivation / And destitution of all property, / Desiccation of the world of sense, / Evacuation of the world of fancy, / Inoperancy of the world of spirit; / This is the one way, and the other / Is the same, not in movement / But abstention from movement; while the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future.
There is only one way to proceed—descent into solitude and dispossession, into the darkness that is liberation. We must go deeper than the London Underground if we would encounter Reality. One need not retreat to the desert. Life imposes its own asceticism. But one must find a way, by faith, to suffer the suffering and live through the loss and endure the darkness. For the past year and a half the Jesus Prayer has been my constant companion: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Often it is the only prayer I can utter. There have been no illuminations and few consolations.
I do not know if this darkness is akin to the night of the senses, of which St John of the Cross speaks.
John Booty elaborates the Eliotean vision of spiritual transformation:
This is a twilight kingdom, wholly self-contained, a “twittering world” in which there is no awareness of darkness, especially not of the darkness through which we grope to attain salvation. Or so it seems. But now we are made suddenly aware that the way up is the way down; the way toward the “still point” of the world is through this twilight kingdom. We must, the poet says, descend as the escalator descends, as the lift descends at the Gloucester Road Underground Station, descend into “the world of perpetual solitude.” The challenge now is to accept existence in time and to be submerged in time, going down, going ever lower, as indicated by Heraclitus and as described, with directions, by St. John of the Cross. The way up is the way down, the gradual descent into utter darkness, in three discernible stages: negation or desiccation first of the senses, then of fancy or intellect, and finally of the spirit as well. This is the deliberate descent into darkness whereby the light, the heart of light at the still point where the dance is, may be perceived. Here is the first glimpse in these poems of the mystic way of ascent to beatitude by means of descent into darkness—the negative way. (Meditating on Four Quartets, p. 13)
Mine has always been a wintry spirituality (despite Cursillo, despite my “baptism in the Spirit”). I wish it were not so. I envy those who feel the warmth of the Spirit and walk with Jesus as their companion. But may not the experience of God’s absence be an experience of God, of the One who infinitely transcends all and is present at the heart of all things? God is not an object within the sensible world. But how does one distinguish Absence from Nothingness? Is there a difference? Nothingness, I propose, elicits apathy or despair; absence elicits lament: “Even the cry from the depths is an affirmation,” Martin Marty wisely states. “Why cry if there is no hint or hope of hearing?”
Tragedy is not salvation. I still live in “appetency” (this time I did not have to check my dictionary to figure out the meaning of the word). I cannot evade the purgative way and the struggle with the passions (“Cleansing affection from the temporal”), yet my record is principally one of failure. Neither books on the spiritual life nor the counsel of spiritual directors have ever been of much help to me, as I seem incapable of implementing the recommended disciplines. In seminary no one in our class missed more of the Divine Offices than I. Thirty-years later I remain that same man. I would surely flunk out of Mt Athos. Kyrie eleison.
I must recite one of my favorite poems:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
Thus my Augustinian hope.
O Lord, bring me to the still point of the turning world.