“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!

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)”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 2)

The analysis continues as Garrett moves on to Saint Joseph’s address to the Carpenter’s Guild.

If you’re coming here after reading Part 1, welcome back! If not, do be aware that this is Part 2 of four-part series where I’ll be analysing G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds. We’re taking it one stanza at a time, and the first part does establish some very important context for us while reading this poem. So I’d highly recommend giving it a read-through to avoid any confusion. Part 2 will still be here when you’re done!

In Part 1, we talked about the birth of Jesus being a challenge to us to lead inspiring Christian lives, no matter where we are in life or what profession we are in. In this next part, we will be examining this through the life of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, and whom we know of course, Jesus inherited his first profession from. So who better to look to when asking how we can live authentic Christian lives in the secular world? Without further ado, let’s dive into the poem, and let St. Joseph teach us a thing or two about the virtue of Kindness.

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 2)”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 1)

Garrett begins an analysis of Chesterton’s poem, “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds”.

What does Advent mean to us, on a personal level? How does this brief season, where we prepare for the coming of Jesus, relate to how we live our lives for the rest of the year? Before the dawn of Advent proper, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, where we recognize the sovereignty of Jesus in our lives, in preparation for his coming as the newborn king. But many find this idea of Jesus as ‘King’ problematic – in a democratic era, kingship can easily be seen as something oppressive and tyrannical. Therefore in this Advent season, I’d like to turn to G.K. Chesterton’s poem A Christmas Song for Three Guilds, which I believe suggests a much more egalitarian idea of the Kingdom of God than we are likely to picture.

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 1)”

Faith and Horror Stories

Garrett muses on the appeal of horror stories, and the corresponding spiritual implications.

One curious fact about myself is that whenever I feel lost, or not in control of my life, I suddenly become an avid reader of horror stories. Though I generally prefer more cheerful types of fiction, as soon as my life takes a turn downwards, I find myself turning to stories of fear and hopelessness, until the my day-to-day commitments start to look a little hopeless too. Without excusing my own laziness and apathy, I thought it would be worth examining why horror stories have such a wide appeal, and also how that relates to us humans as spiritual creatures.

Continue reading “Faith and Horror Stories”