Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age / To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
Over the past five years, the awareness of my mortality has moved front and center. Not in a morbid or obsessive way–but in a way marked and noticeable, at least to me. I am now driving slower on the interstate and have gone the longest period of my life without a speeding ticket (knock on wood). I am more keenly aware of aches and pains and physical changes. I have connected, or tried to connect, with friends, teachers, former parishioners who were once important to me. How many lost threads can I recover and reweave into the garment that is Al Kimel? Some have welcomed the contact, others not particularly. We are not the same people we were. “We die to each other daily,” a guest remarks in The Cocktail Party. “What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.” Lovers must learn this hard truth, husbands and wives must learn this hard truth, friends must learn this hard truth. “We die to each other daily.”
I am now find it existentially necessary to meditate on my past, with all its sins, disappointments, failures and regrets. The future is receding and I cannot afford to ignore the past. There are no redos. I cannot go back and unhurt those whom I have wounded. I cannot go back and make better decisions or unsay the words I have spoken and say the words I wish I had spoken. I cannot recreate my past, though perhaps the retrospection is itself an attempt to recreate. My memories are changed by every act of recollection. How reliable are our memories? Not very, the neuroscientists tell us. Yet despite my monumental excavation of the past, large tracts of my life remain incomprehensible to me, resisting all my attempts to divine their meaning or impose new meaning. If life is a story, then my life seems to be one that has not been well written—too many plot-holes, dead ends and dangling loose ends. Walt Whitman revised the poems of Leaves of Grass until his death, but the power to alter the past is beyond my power. Only God, if there is a God—and there must be God—can make me whole and redeem my history. I must believe that Christ has done so and will do so. There must be Pascha.
T . S. Eliot was 54 years old when he wrote “Little Gidding.” Perhaps he too needed at that point to take stock of his life and assess his artistic achievements. And so he seeks the wisdom of his compound mentor. The words he hears are discouraging.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense / Without enchantment, offering no promise / But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit / As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
That the ghost is referring to the debilities of old age and the loss of creativity and skill seems to be clear, but the poet’s imagery somewhat eludes me. “Cold friction” is unusual—two words I would not have thought to bring together. It brings to my mind someone striking two rocks to start a fire but unable to generate even a single spark. “Expiring sense without enchantment”—is he referring to the loss of rational and imaginative acuity or perhaps an aridity of experience and the death of anticipation? The rose garden no longer enchants as it once did; the future no longer offers the promise of new possibilities. We are condemned to partake of goods that no longer satisfy and will never again satisfy.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly, and the laceration / Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
We should rage at iniquity and stupidity—the suffering caused by both is intolerable. At its best anger generates constructive efforts to change societal structures and ameliorate misery; but at its worst it breeds self-righteousness, cynicism, despair, alienation. Our power to effect real change is so limited—limited by our finitude and limited by the principalities and powers that seek to keep us in bondage. Our rage becomes a prison and passion. Is there anything more pathetic than the late night tweeting of a narcissistic President? And so we take to our keyboards to complain and ridicule, not realizing that we too suffer from the same disease.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment / Of all that you have done, and been; the shame / Of motives late revealed, and the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue. / Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
If we are fortunate, maturity brings a real measure of self-awareness. Yet with this self-awareness comes the inevitable re-enactment of our past wickednesses, small and great. The memories replay themselves on endless loop. Shame drives the playback. We even begin to understand that our good deeds, deeds approved and applauded by others, were informed by our selfishness, lust, and malice. Even our loves, especially our loves, are corrupted by our egotism and pathology.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit / Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
In the earlier Quartets Eliot has spoken of our need for purgatorial fire:
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. (EC IV)
The fire of God’s absolving love is our only cure, the only way through shame and guilt into the freedom of New Creation. Not psychology—no humanistic therapy can effect the radical transformation that is needed. Not theology—intellectualizing perpetuates the illusion of control and keeps divine salvation external to us, leaving our deep hearts untouched. The cross must be internalized—just so it becomes a refining fire in which “we move in measure, like a dancer.” Here is the still point, the contemplative dance of Love that we have been seeking since we walked into the rose garden of “Burnt Nortion”:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. (BN II)
Not an escape from time into frozen eternity but its transformation and rebirth, like a transfigured phoenix rising from the ashes. Our purgatory begins now, as we step into the perichoresis of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In his ascent of the mountain of purgation, Dante comes to the final circle through which the holy souls must pass before passing through the gates of paradise:
Out of the bosom of that ardent fire
“God of the greatest clemency” was sung,
and turning toward them, equal in desire,
I beheld spirits walking through the flame—
so, portioning out my glances here and there,
I looked at them, and watched the way I came.
Near to the last verse of that canticle
they cried aloud, “But I have not known man,”
then they resumed, with voices low and still.
. . .
And in this manner I believe they stood
the whole time they were searing in the fire,
for only by this suffering and this food
Can the last wound of all be sewn, and healed.
Each soul rejoices in the fire that purifies. They would not have it otherwise. Some approach Dante to speak with him, yet “always making sure / never to leave the place where they would burn” (26). They will not willingly leave the burning and thirsting until their healing is complete. Desire must be sanctified. As St Catherine of Genoa reports:
The souls in Purgatory have wills accordant in all things with the will of God, who therefore sheds on them His goodness, and they, as far as their will goes, are happy and cleansed of all their sin. As for guilt, these cleansed souls are as they were when God created them, for God forgives their guilt immediately who have passed from this life ill content with their sins, having confessed all they have committed and having the will to commit no more. Only the rust of sin is left them and from this they cleanse themselves by pain in the fire. Thus cleansed of all guilt and united in will to God, they see Him clearly in the degree in which He makes Himself known to them, and see too how much it imports to enjoy Him and that souls have been created for this end.
To stand at the foot of the cross is to stand in the purifying fire that is infinite Love; to stand in the purifying fire is to dance in a suffering that is joy and ecstasy.
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street / He left me, with a kind of valediction, / And faded on the blowing of the horn.