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!