There is death and there is death. We all go into the dark, but if we embrace it before it overtakes us, perhaps the dark will become the darkness that is God and the way to illumination.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. / Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning. / The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry, / The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy / Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony / Of death and birth.
Precious few have been my moments of genuine stillness. When I have sought stillness directly, it has never come. It invariably comes as gift and surprise. My mind is always busy. Thoughts and logismoi, logismoi and thoughts. I have asked for the prayer of quiet. Perhaps my thoughts are too busy even for God. More likely, I am just too undisciplined.
Embrace the death that is our doom, the poet bids us. Instead of running away from it, turn and accept it. Enter the darkness as a free and positive act. T. S. Eliot does not first tell us that the darkness is God and thus not to be feared. This he no doubt believed, yet he is too honest, too realistic to make such an easy, platitudinous pronouncement. He knows too well the power of modernistic nihilism. Perhaps it was easy to believe in the God of the Scriptures 2,000 years ago but not today. Faith must be lived, fought for, confirmed in experience. In confrontation with nothingness there must be decision. The darkness can only be known as God through surrender to it. Hence the existential decision of faith possesses an “as if” quality: “let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.” Only thus does death cease to be threat and terror.
Self-abandonment, self-divestment, self-dispossession—even the theological virtues are unhelpful at this point. In the nothingness we must wait: without hope … for our hopes flow from the old self and its disordered desires; without love … for we do not know how to love without trying to possess, control, and thus ultimately destroy the object of our love; without thought … for our minds must be renewed before we are capable of holy and truthful thinking. There is only the waiting, a waiting that is a trusting, without expectation, anticipation, or demand: “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”
“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”—the poet takes us back to “Burnt Norton” and the eternal dance of “the still point of the turning world.” The paradox deepens, for now it has entered into our existential depths. In “Burnt Norton” the talk of the still point has an intellectual, philosophical feel, as if we were reading a disquisition on eternity and time. But here the still point becomes the moment (how long is a moment?) of our spiritual transformation. At the far side of entropy, may we find the transcendent light? St Gregory of Nyssa speaks of Moses entering the luminous darkness:
The manifestation of God happens first for Moses in the light; then He spoke with him in the cloud, finally having become more perfect, Moses contemplates God in the darkness. The passage from darkness to light is the first separation of the false and erroneous ideas about God; the intelligence more attentive to hidden things, leading the soul through visible things to the invisible reality, is like a cloud that darkens all the sensible and accustoms the soul to the contemplation of what is hidden; finally the soul that has walked on this path toward heavenly things, having left earthly things in so far as possible to human nature, penetrates the sanctuary of divine knowledge (theognosia) surrounded from all sides by the divine darkness. (Homily XI on the Canticle)
But Moses was at a different point in his contemplative journey. We are only at the beginning, waiting in the darkness of nothingness.
Eliot has instructed us that we must wait without hope, yet he tantalizes us with intimations of the garden. We hear the gurgling of a stream. We smell the thyme in the breeze. But the way back to the tree of life is blocked by cherubim and a flaming sword.
There is only one way forward—“the agony of death and birth.”