{even among these rocks…}

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Happy Lenten season to my Catholic peeps, and to the rest of us who take this time of year to recalibrate ourselves, and try to practice a bit of self control for a month. I think especially of The Brilliant Athena, who is eleven and is trying out Lenten sacrifice as a nonreligious, intellectual exercise this year for the first time. She’s given up … the internet. That is ONE. TOUGH. CHICA. Her Dad is supporting her by forgoing mainlining Coke Zero for forty days. (How much do I love that parenting style? Can they be MY parents??)

Lent, whatever your religious stripe, really is a good reminder to us that we shall not surely die without our Cherished Things. It’s an exercise in self-discovery to realize how much we suffer when we deviate from the little streambed of our usual haunts and activities. How like ants we are, only traveling along our same little lines, doing the same things the same way, whether they’re good for us or not. Lent gives people the excuse to jump out of their ruts.

We Protestant-raised folk who don’t officially “do” Lent still have our opportunity and our excuse to be open to change. March 4-5 was the National Day of Unplugging, started by a group of Jewish folk who made a modern renewal of the traditional Sabbath, and turned off their technology. The Sabbath Manifesto, a weekly sundown-to-sundown shut-off-your-tech agreement between families and friends, and open to everyone, came out of this. Disconnecting and stepping away from the conversation is a very good thing, and gives us time to read, reflect, and to think. Weekly re-creation, an invitation to recreation, in answer to a need we may not have known we had.

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So, too, the Lenten season.

Every year around this time, I ATTEMPT to read and fully understand T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, and every year, I realize I have to settle on a single section of it, and go with that. The entire poem is rife with subtle references, both Biblical and otherwise, and there’s a lot there to miss.

Sometimes, I feel like I have to read Eliot with annotations and a dictionary on hand, but because I love his sonorous voice (I have heard recordings, people, I am not THAT old. Listen to it for yourself, or read it in its entirety here.) and can just imagine him speaking these circuitous, profound and allegorical lines, I keep knocking my head against this one. Today I read this portion aloud:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
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And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

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.

Excerpted from ASH WEDNESDAY, by Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1930

This is a poem is about doubt, about coming two steps forward in belief, and perhaps moving three steps back. It is a poem about difficulty, and faith. It is hard — very, very, very hard. In more ways than one.

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I think I actually enjoy the difficulty of this poem, in a weird way. Every once in awhile, it’s okay to be challenged. It’s okay to give things up. It’s okay to try, and try, and see the edges of where we fail and fall apart.

And pick up again next year. And try again. Even among these rocks…

Poetry Friday, which this week may have even more difficult poetry to share, is hosted by Poetry Princess Liz @ Liz in Ink, who is gleeful about Spring.

10 Replies to “{even among these rocks…}”

  1. Good thing Rob doesn’t observe Lent, because I can’t imagine him giving up Coke Zero. 🙂

    I love Eliot, even when I don’t understand him. It still sounds so lovely, and YES to his wonderful reading voice. When I was a kid, I had a recording of him reading all the poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and I still have such a clear memory today of the sound of his voice reading them aloud.

  2. My personal Lenten challenges don’t seem very challenging when held up to the Internet, Coke Zero and Eliot. But I am my own ant, and my rut is my own rut, so I guess whatever I do to get out of it has to be good enough for me!

  3. I mostly understand, I think, what Eliot is getting at, but if you could explain this part to me:

    I renounce the blessèd face
    And renounce the voice

    I’d appreciate it.

    Maybe I need to find the whole poem.

    1. There’s a link to the whole poem included, and to him reciting it. (Or, reading it; good grief, I daresay it’s too long for even the poet to recite wholly accurately. He reads it so beautifully, it’s mesmerizing.)

      The blessèd face and the voice Eliot renounces are Mary’s, I believe (being an Anglican, she would be important to his theology). Keep in mind that the title of the poem is Ash Wednesday, and it is a day of grief, fasting, and voluntarily and metaphorically (as far as I understand) letting go of one’s hold on life. On Ash Wednesday, people acknowledge that dying gives space for something new to be born.

      “For every resurrection, there is a death, for every death, a resurrection.” – Jeff Goins

      I think that’s what that renouncing means – Eliot is renouncing even the comfort of what brings him peace, in return embracing emptiness and waiting to be filled up again by his faith.

      It’s all very deep and mystical and that’s again why I only attempt this poem in sips. (Cause I am SO not deep.) As I understand it, Eliot wrote this poem just after he became Anglican.

  4. Lovely post. I have decided to skip my early morning computer time for Lent, in favor of reading the Bible in paper. I noticed right away that I have changed my reading quite a bit from looking at the screen, and paper now seems harder, slower, thicker. Hard not to have the hotlinks & quick reference & check in at my favorite sites… but nice and peaceful too. 😉

    “Teach us to sit still.”

    Amen! Thanks for posting this!

  5. I think the unplugging thing is definitely a good thing — I notice a difference if staying offline even for one afternoon or most of a day. Calmer, more reflective.

    Eliot is definitely a challenge. Good idea to tackle sections at a time. I like him better than Pound, who seems incomprehensible to me.

    1. I LOATHE Ezra Pound. I feel a little bad about that, but I think it’s mostly because we had a course in college with a professor who JUST LOVED HIM. OY, we read so much of him, and he seemed both pedantic, and arrogant, AND indecipherable!!! What a horrible combination, but he seemed rather happy with himself.

  6. Thank you for the poem, and more pictures of green and growing things.

    Since Lent was on our minds at work this week, a few of us librarians attempted to fully understand how the powers that be arrive at the date of Easter every year. It’s a real life math word problem, and I think I understood it for about 10 seconds before my brain went, “ACK! No! That’s crazy!”

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