If you came this way, / Taking the route you would be likely to take / From the place you would be likely to come from, / If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges / White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. / It would be the same at the end of the journey, / If you came at night like a broken king, / If you came by day not knowing what you came for, / It would be the same, when you leave the rough road / And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade / And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places / Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws, / Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city— / But this is the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.
“It would be the same.” Neither the time of year nor the time of day matter—it would be the same. Whether we began our journey in December or May, from London or New York, it would be the same. To find Little Gidding we must turn off the road, walk past the brick pigsty (like the Prodigal Son we must become penitents), past the table tomb of Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of the 17th century community that gathered in prayer thrice-daily. In a letter to Arthur Woodnoth, quoting Thomas à Kempis, Ferrar described the spiritual work of his community:
All day they laboured and in the night they found time for long prayer; and while they laboured, they ceased not from contemplation. They spent all their time with profit; every hour seemed short for waiting upon God.
Do we seek Little Gidding to wait upon God or like the tourist to simply see a historic chapel? Perhaps it does not matter. If the latter, we will no doubt be disappointed by its “dull facade.” We will not find a majestic cathedral, as we would if we were heading for Canterbury, York, or Lincoln. “Ironically,” writes Kenneth Tanner, “this place, which [in Eliot’s time] had become a shrine attracting pilgrims, is bland on the outside, lacking any aesthetic quality, dull and situated behind a pigsty” (Redeeming Time, p. 143). Yet above the doorway of this humble church is inscribed the words of the Patriarch Jacob: “This is None Other But the House of God and the Gate of Heaven” (Gen 28:17). If we enter, perhaps we too will dream of the stairway to heaven.
No matter our purpose, it will be undone by our arrival. Do not be misled by your expectations nor by your devotional gravitas. We do not know who we are nor what we seek. We think we do, but we are deceived and confused. God must reveal to us our true selves and motivations.
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
If God grants our prayer, we will discover that the boon we hoped to receive is very different from what initially drove us to seek Little Gidding. Our hopes will be transfigured in their fulfillment.
We are not surprised. Eliot has warned us many times in the previous Quartets of the necessity of purification, dispossession, and rebirth. Recall the image of journey in “East Coker”:
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.
I am tempted to go confessional at this point, but there is no need. Everyone reading this meditation knows the dying of which the poet speaks. If I do not lose my self by way of ascesis, I will most certainly lose it in life. On 2 May 1646, hiding from the Roundheads after his decisive defeat at the Battle of Naseby the previous summer, King Charles I sought refuge at the community of Little Gidding (“If you came at night like a broken king”). What did he seek? What did he find?
There are many places in the world to which we might have made pilgrimage—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Athos, the Grotto of Massabielle, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius. For T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding was “the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.” Most of us find it beneficial to visit a sacred place to wait upon God. For me one such place is the cemetery of the Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville, Maryland. I have enjoyed many conversations there with the Lord and the departed sisters. Hid back in the woods, it radiates a holy peace. Yet as Thomas Howard reminds us: “All ‘nows’ have the potentiality to be ‘the nearest,’ and any geographical location will serve as the approach to the Still Point” (Dove Descending, p. 127).