It was given to me when I was a young man, perhaps when I was in college or perhaps shortly after. I was at the airport. A Hare Krishna approached me. He didn’t attempt to tell me about his religion. He simply gave me a book—the Bhagavid Gita. I kept it for several decades, but I never read a page. I don’t know why I kept it, or why I did not attempt to read it. Finally I was forced to throw it away when I discovered that it, along with the other books in the same box, had become moldy. Had I known that one day I would read Four Quartets, perhaps I would have read the song that had been given to me. T. S. Eliot studied Indic philosophy and religion during his undergraduate days at Harvard University and developed an abiding love for the Gita. He considered it “the next greatest philosophical poem to The Divine Comedy within my experience.”
In the third movement of each poem of the Quartets, Eliot explores the theme of detachment as a means of spiritual enlightenment and freedom. In “Burnt Norton” he writes of the need to cultivate inner silence:
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.
In “East Coker” he invokes the Carmelite discipline of self-dispossession:
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.
In “The Dry Salvages” he proposes the way of actionless action—the renunciation of reward and benefit from what we do.
We need some background. The Baghavad Gita records the conversation between the Lord Krishna, the supreme personality of the Godhead, and Arjuna, the general of the Pandava army, immediately before the battle of Kuruksettra. Surveying the opposing army, Arjuna begins to doubt the wisdom of the battle. The opposing army is filled with relatives and friends. Even if his side should prove victorious, it will come at too great a cost. At this point Krishna, who is serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, begins to teach him the essential spiritual truths, including the path of karma yoga.
I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant— / Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing: / That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray / Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret, / Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened. / And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.
The great theme of Four Quartets is time—its sufferings and its redemption. Here Eliot invites us to think on the future, not as the unlimited possibilities that lie ahead of us, but as that which has already happened and we are quickly forgetting—“a faded song” or a rose we have pressed in the pages of a book we have never opened in remembrance of someone who has yet to be born. “Eliot,” Thomas Howard remarks, “is violently telescoping past, present, and future” (Dove Descending, p. 110). At some point in our lives, unless we are truly blessed, we begin to experience the future as fate, as meaningless repetition of the past. The future—the future of time, within time—no more offers a solution to the existential condition of man than does the past. At every moment we find ourselves “In a drifting boat with a slow leakage.” We keep bailing, but we make no progress. How is tomorrow any different than yesterday? There is no end of it. Each day we suffer.
For almost a decade my wife has suffered from debilitating chronic daily headaches. She has spent the majority of her time lying in bed or sitting in a chair in a dark room. Light, sound, movement—all intensify the headache or trigger the migraine component. She has seen a half-dozen neurologists and tried every remedy known to alternative medicine. We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on medication.
“Please heal her,” I beg the Lord in prayer. The headaches continue unabated.
“There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,” the poet writes. The days of suffering have become one long, interminable day. Future has become past has become present.
Christine rarely complains. Over the past year she has been given a few good days each month. We have taken to dining out whenever they occur. Far less frequent now are the days when I find her on the floor sobbing. I cannot fix her. I cannot heal her. It breaks my heart. Somehow she must find, as I must find, the redemptive transformation of this suffering. Christ bears it with her, I know. Yet living it is hard. Acute suffering steals away life and hope and future. There is only the pain and the loss of what might have been.
“And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.”