Meditating Four Quartets: East Coker (IV/2)

The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire, / Wherein, if we do well, we shall / Die of the absolute paternal care / That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

Hospitals are typically endowed by wealthy benefactors. Our terrestrial hospital was endowed by Adam, who once “possessed” paradise but, like the younger son of the parable, squandered it all, thereby bringing ruin upon himself and humanity. And so the world became a hospice. In the 17th century Sir Thomas Browne wrote: “For the world, I count not an Inn, but an Hospital, and a place, not to live in, but to die in.”

Death is our curse, yet if we “do well,” if we embrace the sacramental ministrations of Holy Mother Church and subject ourselves to her ascetical disciplines, our dying can become experience of our heavenly Father’s care and mercy, which “will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere” (here Eliot invokes the archaic meaning of “prevent,” viz., “precede”). His grace always precedes us, summoning us to repentance and faith, summoning us to death. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 16:25).

In his Ad Thalassium St Maximus the Confessor speaks of the incarnate Christ as taking up “the use of death.” Whereas through the sin of Adam death entered the world, thus condemning human nature, so Christ freely subjects himself to death in order to condemn sin in the flesh. As a result, those who have been reborn in the waters of baptism now “enjoy the effective use of death for purposes of condemning sin” (61). John Behr elaborates upon the significance of this “use of death”:

Rather than being passive and frustrated, victims of death and of the givenness of our mortality, in Christ we freely and actively “use death,” in St Maximus’ striking phrase. And in so doing, we will transcend the limitations of the life into which we have been born, in which we have found ourselves through no choice of our own—the “existence” in which, whatever we do, we die. In and through Christ, we now have the possibility of freely using the givenness of our mortality to be reborn, by choice, so coming to be in a life without end. Only now does freedom—not necessity—become the basis for a truly human existence in Christ. …

This new “use of death” is not an act of desperation bringing about the end, or an act of passive submission to victimization, resigning oneself to one’s fate. It is, rather, the beginning of new life for the baptized and for those around them, a new mode of existence—“in Christ” rather than “in Adam”—manifest in the baptized. Yet it is so only to the extent that they actively take up the cross, that is, no longer live for themselves in an ego-centric mode of life, but rather live ecstatically, beyond themselves, for their neighbors and for God. Through Christ’s work, we need no longer be passive victims of the mortality into which we have been thrown, for now we can actively “use death” as the beginning of a new mode of life, a birth into existence as a human being. (Becoming Human, pp. 52-53, 56-57)

Instead of fleeing from death, we turn and embrace it as the means of our liberation. As the poet writes in the third movement: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.” Here is an active-passivity and a passive-activity, as the believer surrenders himself to the divine darkness in the ascetical life of the Church.

The chill ascends from feet to knees, / The fever sings in mental wires. / If to be warmed, then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

Each day we die in Christ. We feel the chill of death slowly engulfing us. But in Eliot’s striking metaphor, the chill is caused by the “frigid purgatorial fires.” Ice too burns and kills. Before we can experience the warmth of new life, we must patiently endure—and eagerly welcome—the winter of purgation. When one reads the Purgatorio of Dante, one is immediately struck by the joy of the penitents. Their sufferings are terrible, yet they rejoice in them, for by their suffering they are purified of their dross and thus brought ever closer to bliss. Eliot then compounds the image of frigid fire: “the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.” We began “Burnt Norton” by walking into a rose-garden, and we encounter roses throughout the Four Quartets. Thomas Howard avers that Eliot does not give us symbols in the Four Quartets but rather cases-in-point. What does a rose symbolize? Nothing, Howard would say—it’s a rose. Perhaps we should therefore not attempt to over-analyze the image but simply indwell it for a while. The rose is a beautiful flower and prized by gardeners. Its fragrance is sweet, elusive, compelling. A lover delights in giving roses—even better, a single rose—to his beloved on special occasions or any occasion. The rose is the national flower of England. Medieval Christians identified its five petals with the five wounds of Christ. So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. That this object of beauty should function as the fuel of our purgation suggests, at least to me, rebirth by beauty into beauty. “Out of the flames of the purgatorial fire come roses,” writes John Booty, “roses as flames symbolizing eternal life, and their smoke is briars, briars that both wound and redeem” (Meditations on Four Quartets, p. 28). I wonder what a burning rose smells like.

The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food: / In spite of which we like to think / That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— / Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

The catholic faith of Thomas Stearns Eliot finally becomes explicit in the Quartets. We live in that Friday made good by Easter. Here is the source, cause, and occasion of our redemption. The blood of the Savior shed on Calvary is our drink; the body broken on the cross our meat. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:53-56): we share in the salvation of Christ not by intellectual assent but by sacramental communion in his glorified body and blood.

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