You say I am repeating / Something I have said before. I shall say it again. / Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there, / To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not, / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy. / In order to arrive at what you do not know / You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to possess what you do not possess / You must go by the way of dispossession. / In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not. / And what you do not know is the only thing you know / And what you own is what you do not own / And where you are is where you are not.
At first glance one might think that T. S. Eliot has presented us a series of Zen koans, riddles designed to confuse, provoke, and ultimately enlighten—and in a sense he has. Six antinomies: know/ignorance; possess/dispossession; what you are not/through the way in which you are not; do not know/the only thing you know; own/do not own; where you are/where you are not. Our discursive reason objects to paradox. Please give me a nice syllogism. But in confrontation with the darkness, our reason betrays us. It only confirms us in the status quo, which is the way of death. There is only one way forward: we must inhabit the paradoxes and discover the way of life.
St John of the Cross, whose writings Eliot read deeply, brings us into the heart of the ascetical mystery:
To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.
(Ascent of Mount Carmel I.13.11)
Here is the Carmelite way to salvation—the way of purgation and detachment, the way of the Cross. We must strip ourselves—or be stripped—of all of our illusions and delusions. We must liberate ourselves—or be liberated—from our attachments. We must die to self—or our selves must be slain—that we might be reborn into a new creation. Rowan Williams writes, “Thus the movement of self or soul is always a stripping, a simplification.” Yet, he goes on to explain, for St John “it is a movement towards fulfillment, not emptiness, towards beauty and life, not annihilation” (The Wound of Knowledge, pp. 176-177).
Yet how do I live this? I live on neither Mount Carmel nor Mount Athos. How do I achieve the detachment necessary for liberation? How do I inhabit the Eliotean paradoxes? And hasn’t Vladimir Lossky told us that St John of the Cross is alien to Orthodox spirituality? (For a contrary assessment, see David B. Hart, “Bright Morning of the Soul.”) Yet the Lord himself directed St Silouan, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”?
I shall say my prayers. I shall attend to my wife, my children, my friends, my neighbors. I shall do the work to which I am called.
I shall wait in the darkness.
“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).