If you came this way, / Taking any route, starting from anywhere, / At any time or at any season, / It would always be the same: you would have to put off / Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. / And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. / Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
It is always the same, T. S. Eliot tells us. If we would find “the still point of the turning world,” we must “put off / Sense and notion.” Our minds are busy with the chatter of the world; we live in a non-stop cocktail party of impassioned thoughts. They demand our attention, drain our energy, and inflame our disordered desires. In the Orthodox ascetical tradition, they are called logismoi. In his informative introduction to Athonite spirituality, The Mountain of Silence, Kyriacos Markides asks a respected monk to explain the origin and nature of logismoi. Fr Maximos replies:
There was a time when the first humans lived in full accordance to their true nature. In such a state all their energy, all their powers, were totally harmonized and focused around one motion, the motion toward God. Their nous, that is, their heart and mind, had but a single and exclusive preoccupation, ceaseless prayer. At that state their sole experience and focus was what the elders call the Theoria, that is, the vision of God.
Adam and Eve, as the primordial humans, disrupted this relationship of oneness with God through the Fall. They consequently became trapped and entangled within this world of three dimensions of matter, of egotistical passions, of sin. They ceased being in a constant prayerful state, their essential and true function by nature. The entire Creation suffered as a result of this split between humanity and God. So what we now have is this phenomenon of the ceaseless production of logismoi instead of ceaseless prayer. The logismoi are alien to our original condition, to the original working of our nous. The moment we were cut off from God, we entered into a state of existence dominated by worldly concerns, by logismoi. Our nous became scattered to the things of this world. (p. 121)
The cocktail party of thoughts is the norm for fallen human beings. It both causes and sustains our alienation from God. Thinking, thinking, thinking; words, words, words; noise, noise, noise. We are trapped in the chatter. Whether we will or not, the thoughts invade our consciousness. We experience them as originating outside ourselves. Even when we are sleeping, the barrage of logismoi continues. Satan attacks us through the noise. Evagrius analyzed and famously classified the negative logismoi under eight principal thoughts—gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, despondency, acedia, vainglory, and pride (see Evagrius Ponticus). Fr Maximos compares these thoughts to injections of poison that spread throughout our system: “Your spiritual world becomes contaminated and you are affected on a very deep, fundamental level. Your entire spiritual edifice can be shaken from its very foundation. Sometimes the intensity of a single logismos is so great that human beings under its spell may feel totally helpless” (p. 119).
To break up this party of logismoi, we must intentionally cultivate an interior silence that makes possible, and indeed is, communion with the Eternal. As St John of the Cross teaches: “The Father spoke one Word which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul” (Maxims and Counsels 21). To enter into the silence of God is to abide in the trinitarian life that heals and redeems. “Silence is God’s first language,” writes Fr Thomas Keating. “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God” (Invitation to Love, p. 90; also see this interview with Cardinal Sarah).
We enter the church, kneel, and begin to pray. For this we have made pilgrimage to this sacred place where “prayer has been valid”—to enter into communion with the living God and the saints, not “to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report.” How easy it is to remain at the surface. All we need do is open the prayer book and begin to mechanically recite the words. I am comfortable at the surface, comfortable with the superficial, comfortable even with the cocktail party. I much prefer to read and think about God than to lose myself in the infinite depths of divine silence. But the poet commends to us a praying that goes deeper even than that personal talking to (or more likely, talking at) the Lord that typically characterizes our devotional life. Virginia Woolf once asked Eliot what he experienced when he prayed. In reply he described “the attempt to concentrate, to forget self, to attain union with God.”
To attain this union with God, we must learn a new language. Eliot provocatively suggests that we appropriate the Pentecostal speech of the departed: “And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” If one does not have a vital understanding of the communion of saints, the words of the poet will be virtually incomprehensible. It all sounds like necromancy. Perhaps one needs an icon corner to understand. When one stands in prayer before and with the saints, invoking them in intercession and venerating their images, they become present in a way I cannot begin to describe. I have not yet become fluent in their language. Eliot did not venerate icons, as do the Orthodox, yet clearly he conversed with the faithful departed and had begun to assimilate the heavenly tongues of the Spirit.
Prayer pierces the scrim between time and the timeless, through to the region where the dead are to be found. They alone speak with the fiery tongues needed to bespeak the thunderous mystery and glory that looms over Little Gidding. Some language “beyond the language of the living” is necessary, like the Pentecostal tongues with which the apostles announced that glory. … At Little Gidding we find, as the shepherds found at the manger in Bethlehem, or the disciples at the Transfiguration, say, or wherever Love in its glory is glimpsed, a particularly stark epiphany of “what the dead had no speech for, when living.” (Thomas Howard, Dove Descending, p. 127)
Here we kneel in the midst of all who have offered prayer before us, both here at Little Gidding and elsewhere, in all times, in all places. Here we kneel at the “intersection of the timeless moment.”