The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being, / Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination— / We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form, beyond any meaning / We can assign to happiness.
Moments of happiness—not as we might think of them. As transformative as a good dinner may be, it does not usually attain the contemplative depth that Eliot has in mind. Few of us are privileged to be feasted by Babette Hersant. The poet is thinking of those rarer moments in which we are touched by eternity—moments of “sudden illumination” that encompass and transcend time. Eliot was a private person and did not speak often of his personal religious experiences, but clearly they inform every stanza of the Four Quartets.
I have only experienced a few moments in my life that I would describe as mystical epiphanies. The first occurred in the summer of 1978, between my junior and middler years in seminary. I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one night. I find it difficult to describe the experience and am reluctant to even try. I have thought about it often and wondered about its significance and even genuineness. But something wonderful happened to me, never to be repeated. There was a shift in consciousness. Time seemed to stop. I do not know how much time passed by while I was caught up in this ecstatic rapture. I do not recall what, if anything, I saw or felt. All I know is that when I returned to ordinary time, I was praying in the Spirit and my heart was filled with joy.
How does one verbally articulate such moments, given that they presuppose the suspension of the discursive faculty? “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” We cannot, of course, reproduce them—all such attempts only generate facsimiles—but the ineffable moment may be brought into the present by recollection and restored in a different mode, “beyond any meaning / We can assign to happiness.”
In a 1930 letter to William Force Stead, Eliot remarked: “A theory I have nourished for a long time,that between the usual subjects of poetry and ‘devotional’ verse there is a very important field still unexplained by modern poets—the experience of man in search of God, and trying to explain to himself his intenser human feelings in terms of the divine goal.” In his Four Quartets Eliot brings his “theory” into reality, creating, in the words of Kenneth Kramer, “a new mode of meditative poetry” (Redeeming Time, pp. 14-15). Each poem may be understood as a spiritual path, beginning with meditation upon the world and concluding in unitive contemplation; each poem, read individually and together as a whole, invites the reader to retrieve the mystical moment and experience anew the grace and presence of the living God:
Four Quartets contemplates, through idea and word, how timeless moments—of redeeming reciprocity, of graced consciousness—shine through physical landscapes and release the poet from temporal enchainments. In meditating on these landscapes, the poet discovers that spiritual substance cannot be found fully in himself or in the totality of his experiences. Rather, it emerges from unsought, unforeseen moments of redeeming reciprocity (divine-human mutual contact) that interrupt time briefly in places entered by chance, and that are then retrieved and appropriated through an interplay of detached memory and disciplined imagination. In Four Quartets, therefore, a continual back and forth movement occurs between ordinary time—a field of relentless distractions, struggle, and toil—and redeeming time—a graced elevation of ordinary consciousness arising from a genuinely mutual, giving-and-receiving engagement between poet and world that generates “inner freedom from the practical desire” and “release from action and suffering” (BN II).
Two interrelated key terms—“grace” and “redemption”—appear throughout this reading of the Four Quartets. For Eliot, “grace” is an empowering spirit that freely initiates and guides specific human actions, without effort or self-awareness, a gift that happens not in a person but to a person from a transcendent source. That is, a person is seized by a presence that recasts him or her in the shape of spontaneous mutuality emerging between humans and the divine. “Redemption” is not an isolated goal toward which to aspire. Rather, it involves events and acts awakening one from exile, suffering, and separation into liberating relationships with others and renewing relationships with the world. Redeeming time, accordingly, embodies an existential partnership between human action (attempts to eliminate self-reinforcing distractions) and divine grace (an empowering spirit that breaks into the temporal process with love beyond desire).
In his spiritual journey, the poet comes to recognize a new kind of spiritual chemistry—not the recollection of an inner truth but experiencing a relational connection to God’s presence hidden in the world. Emancipating reciprocities are discovered in the temporal flow that were before invisible; one can act in time without being attached to fruitless desires that lead toward suffering. (pp. xiii-xiv)
As we continue our reading of the Quartets, we need to be alert to the redemptive reciprocities expressed in each poem.
I have said before / That the past experience revived in the meaning / Is not the experience of one life only / But of many generations—not forgetting / Something that is probably quite ineffable: / The backward look behind the assurance / Of recorded history, the backward half-look / Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
We live within the history of the divine self-communication. We have the words of the prophets, saints, and mystics who have known God and have shared their encounters with the numinous—mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Through our reflection upon their testimonies, their experiences inform and deepen our own and are thus revived in the present, yet “in a different form.” Eliot himself was well read in the mystical tradition, both Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist. We have already noted in “East Coker” the influence of St John of the Cross on his understanding of purgation and detachment from desire. In the third movement of “Dry Salvages,” Eliot will commend to us the way of yogic action as described in the Bhagavad Gita. In the Quartets, Kramer writes, “the poet engages not only his own past but also the past generations and cultures that enrich and deepen his realization” (p. 113).
I am struck by the phrase “primitive terror.” We have come a long way from the rose garden of “Burnt Norton.” We are with Israel on Mount Sinai, when the Lord “descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Ex 19:18). We are with Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock as the Holy One reveals his glory. “Man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:29). We read the Old Testament theophanies but can only manage a “backward half-look / Over the shoulder.” I wonder if Eliot ever read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolph Otto.