“Ash-Wednesday” and Lenten Resolutions

Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’ Garrett shares his Lenten resolutions.

So, what are you giving up this Lent?

I once saw a YouTube video (now taken down), where the speaker suggested that rather than giving up an arbitrary minor inconvenience to us during this season, we should instead follow a 3-step process: 1) Figure out where God wants us to be. 2) Think of something that will help us reach that goal. 3) Carry it out throughout Lent and be sure to think of what will happen once the season ends. I found this process helpful as it helps us to construct a sustainable framework of spiritual self-improvement as we enter the season of Lent.

So how does this influence me, personally, this Lent? I admit that in the present moment, I find myself in a complicated position. I find myself growing in my love for God, and also my desire to defend Him and His Church on campus, both in the classroom and by serving him through my friends. “When I was a child” said Saint Paul, “I used to talk like a child, and think like a child, and argue as a child, but now that I am a man, all childish ways are put behind me” (1 Cor 13:11). Never have these words held so much meaning for me. I strongly feel that the call for me this Lent is to take a good hard look at my life and leave behind the ‘childish’ things in my life so that I can become more mature in my faith, ready to share it and pass it on.

And yet, through prayer I also realize the need to be patient, to allow God’s plan to unfold in my life and purify me as I become more aware of my flaws and foibles. If undertaken in a prideful manner, my Lenten resolution can very easily become self-serving, a form of self-improvement rather than a drawing nearer to God. So how am I to negotiate this tension between self-seeking glory and the greater glory of God? I believe this question was also considered by T.S. Eliot in his conversion poem, ‘Ash-Wednesday’.

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about Elliot, introducing him and his poetry in preparation for this article. This was because despite his complexity, Elliot’s poetry really spoke to me throughout the last year in some of my darkest moments, and I’d like to share it with as many people as possible. From the first part of ‘Ash-Wednesday’, which we will be looking at in this article, it is obvious that Elliot could grasp the issue I’m struggling with now – the ease of which we can use holy language to mask selfish motives.

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?”

Eliot begins by turning our usual expectations of ‘church-y’ language on its head, much like how I mention he often does in my previous article. He said that he does not ‘hope to turn again’, when hope is a word of such significance to a Christian (e.g. Faith, Hope and Love). Likewise, we often use ‘turn’ in a positive sense – metanoia, a turning towards the Lord. ‘Turning’ has connotations of repentance and salvation.

But remember the context here: if this is Eliot’s conversion poem, then he is already on the side of Christ, or at least striving to be. To hope to turn, in that case, would be to turn away from Jesus and back to the world. Describing himself as an ‘aged eagle’ (remember also that Eliot was born an American), he portrays himself as tired of the ‘usual reign’ of sin in his life, where he would compete with and be envious of others (this man’s gift and that man’s scope).

Returning to the eagle, one famous biblical image is the promise of Isaiah 40:31 – “but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength, they put out wings like eagles. They run and do not grow weary, walk and never tire.” Perhaps this Lent, one call for me is to recognize that I too am an ‘aged eagle’, grown old with pride and sin. It is only by turning –truly turning!- to the Lord can my strength be renewed.

“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Skipping a little ahead in the poem, Eliot goes back to this theme of eagles. Well, wings, at least. In keeping with the idea of turning to the Lord in our weariness to be renewed, the poet describes an inhospitable environment around him. Eliot describes the air as ‘thoroughly small and dry/ Smaller and dryer than the will’, the air seeming to represent the things beyond our control, or rather, the things in God’s control. I may have lofty Lenten ambitions, but it is also important for me to remember that it is God that sets the stage for me to grow – the wings of an old eagle are ‘no longer wings to fly’ after all!

I love also the last two lines, ‘Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.’ I think these lines reveal to us something about detachment, that it isn’t necessarily something that you can force by supressing your attachments and putting up the façade that you have it all under control. Rather, detachment comes when you allow God to be at the center of your life, allowing Him to put everything in its proper place, to be a teacher to us.

This first part then ends with these two line:

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Sound familiar? Those lines are taken straight from the famous Hail Mary prayer, where we ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for us. I think that this is a nice way to end the first part of the poem, and a nice way to end my Lenten reflection as well. As Lent dawns upon us, let us keep each other in prayer, and ask for the intercession of the Saints in heaven as well, so that we can all look forward to Easter with our lives renewed!

I hope you enjoyed my Lenten sharing, and also along the way found Eliot less confusing and somewhat informative as we went through his poem. All the best with your Lenten resolutions and God bless!

Letter to St. Peter

Greg asks St Peter about the divides present in the Church

Hey St Peter!

What’s up? (If Heaven is truly above us, then you would be up I guess) Thanks for taking care of the keys of Heaven and for continually praying for us to our Father in Heaven! Thanks for letting me write a letter to you (truly very honored to be writing to the first Pope)! I must say, it is truly an honor to be writing to the first Pope of the Church and the Rock on which Jesus build His Church upon. I think it’s quite fascinating for me to be able to converse with someone who has not only walked alongside Jesus literally but have continued to spread the message of Christ to all and have ultimately, paid the price through your death (my sincerest condolences). So many questions I have in my head, so little time (or space).

Continue reading “Letter to St. Peter”

Letter to Pope John XXIII

Chris writes a letter to Pope John XXIII — a Saint whom he finds very jolly and jovial (with a very important lesson to teach!)

“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”  – Pope John XXIII

Dear Pope John XXIII,

Congratulations on your recent canonisation four years ago! I hope that all’s well with you in Heaven and that you’re enjoying yourself immensely with the communion of saints as well as the perpetuation adoration of our Lord, God and master, Jesus Christ.

I must be honest: I write to you today not because I have loads to share with you nor do I have any particular prayer intention that require your assistance. Pope John XXIII you must forgive me: I hardly know you and only just read about you the other day whilst completing the book The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Saint John of the Cross Reflections by Friar Marc Foley, OCD. That being said, after chancing upon one of your quotes and reflecting on it deeper in prayer, I must say that I felt a stirring in my heart to get to know you better. I will share your quote momentarily but before that, I just want to say that I’m moved by how light-hearted you seem to be. Reading up on you has allowed me to get a better sense of who you are. Yet, most – if not all – of the quotes that I’ve read about you seem to paint you as an exceptionally jovial and joyful person. Pope John XXIII, your personality speaks to the depth of my heart simply because you don’t take yourself too seriously; you seem to exude a distinctive childlike aura that I find deeply alluring – one that painfully reminds me just how “adult” I’ve grown to become.

Continue reading “Letter to Pope John XXIII”

Angels, We Have Heard from High! Now What?

Greg talks about the shepherds in the Christmas narrative: the necessary faith and openness needed to respond to the praises of the angels.

Picture the scene with me. You’re a night security officer. You’ve just come back from dinner and are intently trying not to fall asleep at your station. It’s quite late at night but you remain faithful to your job. And then, all of a sudden, a bright light begins to shine in front of you and you squint, trying to see who on Earth would switch on such a bright light at night. And lo and behold, you see this figure standing in front of you, apparently emanating this strong light that is blinding you. You are terrified. But as soon as you feel this fear, the figure says, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12). With that, more and more figures appear and they began to chant and sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). And this goes on and on until, slowly, one by one, the figures leave and you’re alone in your station once again. How would you react?

Continue reading “Angels, We Have Heard from High! Now What?”

Make Straight the Path

Greg ponders on what John the Baptist means when he asks us to “make straight the path” and talks about how he sometimes confuses the path for the end goal instead of simply that: a path.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Isaiah 40:3

In our Advent Gospels, we always hear of John the Baptist and his mission to prepare for the coming of Jesus. And part of this call is an echo of what Isaiah has foretold and what John the Baptist reaffirms in John 1:23:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord”

Continue reading “Make Straight the Path”

Silenced by Truth: Zechariah’s response to Angel Gabriel

In the following article, Chris compares the differing responses of Zechariah and Mary towards Angel Gabriel’s proclamation of Good News.

As a child, I often wondered why Zechariah, father of John the Baptist and husband to Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – was “unable to speak” and became “mute” after his encounter with Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:20). Correspondingly, I found it even more interesting to compare the aftermath of his response to Angel Gabriel with that of Mary. Therefore, in this Advent season, I found it timely and poignant to properly articulate my thoughts juxtapose these two pivotal characters of the Advent Narrative. Why did Mary’s brother-in-law, receive such a harsh treatment from Angel Gabriel and what made his response any different from Mary’s? What lessons can we then learn from both their responses?

Continue reading “Silenced by Truth: Zechariah’s response to Angel Gabriel”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)

In the third part of the analysis, Garrett shows how St. Crispin teaches us the virtue of humility.

Welcome to Part 3 of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! Part 1 and Part 2 can be found elsewhere on this blog. I highly recommend giving a read through to Part 1 at least as over there I went through some important principles to take note of when reading this poem, especially on Chesterton’s use of violent imagery. In Part 3, we’ll be look at the second guild, the Shoemakers, who are addressed by their patron, Saint Crispin!

Now, Saint Crispin is a little obscure, so perhaps a bit of an introduction is in order. Crispin and his brother Crispinian are two martyrs from the time of the early Church, that mysterious, legendary group that I wrote about last month. The two brothers went to preach the Gospel in Roman Gaul, that is to say, modern-day France. Along the way, they earned their keep by making shoes, much like how Saint Paul supported himself through tent-making. Eventually, they were captured in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their Faith. So the legend goes.

What we are learning today from Saint Crispin’s address is the virtue of humility. So let’s get right into it!

‘St. Crispin to the shoemakers said on a Christmastide:
“Who fashions at another’s feet will get no good of pride.’

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)”