Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.
When I read these lines last May, I knew that I had to stop blogging on Little Gidding and read the Showings of Julian of Norwich. It took me a few months to get started on it, but I finally made my way through Julian’s famous work in mystical theology and blogged on it last October. My reading confirmed what the sentence seems to say: Julian is convinced God will accomplish his good purposes for his creation, whatever the obstacles (“All Shall be Well …“). I am now ready to return to T. S. Eliot’s concluding poem of The Four Quartets.
In the lines preceding the quotation from Julian, Eliot analyzes the theme of attachment and detachment: if we are to become persons capable of “love beyond desire,” then we must practice an ascetical detachment “from self and from things and from persons.” The sudden invocation of Julian’s words of eschatological hope therefore comes as a surprise. Why introduce the Anchoress at this point? Perhaps because his visit to Little Gidding has brought to mind the men and women who lived, prayed, suffered, and died during the English Civil War.
If I think, again, of this place, / And of people, not wholly commendable, / Of no immediate kin or kindness, / But of some peculiar genius, / All touched by a common genius, / United in the strife which divided them; / If I think of a king at nightfall, / Of three men, and more, on the scaffold / And a few who died forgotten / In other places, here and abroad, / And of one who died blind and quiet / Why should we celebrate / These dead men more than the dying? / It is not to ring the bell backward / Nor is it an incantation / To summon the spectre of a Rose. / We cannot revive old factions / We cannot restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum. / These men, and those who opposed them / And those whom they opposed / Accept the constitution of silence / And are folded in a single party. / Whatever we inherit from the fortunate / We have taken from the defeated / What they had to leave us—a symbol: / A symbol perfected in death. / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.
If Eliot had lived during the English Civil War of the 17th century, he no doubt would have sided with the Royalist cause. He certainly had little sympathy for Puritanism as a religious and political movement. He remembers the history of this tragic period, not to re-fight the war nor rehearse old grievances nor advocate revolution–that would only deepen the nation’s slavery to violence and hatred. He remembers, rather, in order to purify memory and “become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” In the measure of detachment that he has achieved, the poet reviews the past and sees that in their loyalty to their respective causes, Cavalier and Roundhead have been “folded in a single party.” We may now receive from them “a symbol perfected in death.” The poet’s act of recollection is bracketed by Julian’s invocation of the redemptive providence of God. John Booty elaborates:
Eliot, detached from servitude to past or future, perceives the underlying unity among those who have been in opposition in the civil wars of the seventeenth century and always. Opposites are united by the harmony of underlying intentions, the pursuit of holiness, the quest for love, the endless struggle for spiritual values—such idealistic goals as always seem to end in defeat. Laudians and Puritans in the seventeenth century, both pursuing holiness although otherwise opposed, labored, as those like them labor now, with the conviction eloquently expressed by Dame Julian of Norwich in her fourteenth century Showings, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” (Meditating on Four Quartets, pp. 52-53)
Neither Julian nor Eliot are sentimentalists. Julian witnessed the plague that took the lives of thousands; Eliot the devastation wreaked by the German Luftwaffe. Their faith in the omnipotent Love of God is hard-won, flowing from the painful struggle of repentance and prayer, “By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.”