By Ian Olson
Lent is always a summoning out of the fertile Jordan Valley and into the wasteland, a wasteland, paradoxically, pregnant with promise. We are driven out of the lush surplus to the desert so as to see with new eyes what we love and what we ought to love.
So long as we are alive, we are pilgrims on our way somewhere. We must, therefore, be mindful of the way we are going and correct our course if we find the stars are wrong and we are nowhere near the destination we had envisioned. Of course, you may feel quite assured you have arrived where you think you ought to be, where you presume everyone ought to be, but if this is the case, you almost certainly have not arrived anywhere worth calling an endpoint. We cannot arrive where we must, where we most desire, on our own.
For none of us has life in ourselves; all of us continually hang over the abyss of non-being. All of us need our courses set in motion and continually reassessed by the One who stands in no need whatsoever, who has no need of coordinates from anyone else. Either you know this and continually refer back to him for your pilgrimage, or you are in denial and are making your way further into that abyss, closing your eyes to the nothingness that is engulfing you.
Written shortly after T.S. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, “Ash-Wednesday” depicts such an awakening in the protracted collapse from busy unbelief to the first, exhausted possibility of hope, a hope that yearns to shake off the former busyness and at last find rest. But the search for rest itself is also exhausting, and we are constantly in need of replenishment. The hope we pursue must not be envisioned as just around the corner, or our spirits will be utterly crushed by disappointment. We must trudge on, attentive to the manna and quail periodically being provided.
“Ash-Wednesday” is a deep well of images and phrases that reorient the reader like a compass to a map, every stanza bringing to speech the frustration and hurt of wilderness wandering, even as it breaks open rocks to supply fresh water. Like the Christian life itself, anguish and refreshment accompany each other throughout the way.
After renouncing the striving to covetously strive after others’ goods that has previously characterized him, Eliot is given a vision of his remains after being devoured by leopards. Renunciation brings about deliverance, but it is a deliverance through death. The need to consume has brought him to this: being consumed. “I am who here dissembled/Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love/To the posterity of the desert.” Manic acquisition has brought him nothing and he has nothing to leave anyone else.
Like the poem’s narrator, we, too, are blissfully oblivious to both our ends and the measure of our days, going about as shadows and continually in turmoil for nothing; hoarding and accumulating for no substantive purpose, unfulfilled by our activity and unable to guarantee its benefit to anyone else (Ps. 39:4-6). Our inheritance, Eliot frighteningly intones, is the desert, and we too are dry, scattered bones.
In an echo of Ezekiel 37:3-4, God asks, “Can these bones live?” The question is rhetorical for those who recognize the impossibility of their coming to life. But that is just the problem: everyday existence obscures for most of us the absurdity of our insistence that we are already truly alive. We are dry bones, “glad to be scattered,” having done “little good to each other,” at ease with our malcontent.
Our lives are brief transits, “a dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.” Though this is the norm, we all intuit something is terribly wrong, that this is not what our existence is supposed to be. But we turn to the things that deepen our predicament and hasten our demise for solace, concealing from ourselves the oblivion we embrace to console us against oblivion.
Anguish is inescapable in a fallen world, and the attempt to escape it only exacerbates it. The gospel, however, accepts it so as to transform it, to draw us out of obliviousness and into recognition and acceptance of the oblivion that is the natural outcome of existence in this world. Only through such an intervention by God can the twilight between birth and dying become, instead, a “time of tension between dying and birth.”
“Lord, I am not worthy,” the narrator says, evoking the centurion’s faith of Matthew 8:8, “but speak the word only.” Grace awakens awareness that we are not worthy of aid, of restoration, of being claimed and beloved, but it does so to convey the inexplicable wonder of God’s love for the unworthy.
As the poems reaches its climax, Eliot petitions:
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will.
The “us” for which he intercedes is more than a generic, collective pronoun. He is describing all of us caught up in the mania of the modern era, urged on to become selves through accumulation and mastery, whatever the cost to ourselves and others. His intercession is a genuine plea for a genuine group to which he belongs as a modern Westerner and as a Christian.
We care both too much and too little. Those things for which we ought to care we have pitifully little regard for, and those things that are, at best, innocent distractions and, at worst, are narcoleptic hindrances command our attention and devotion. For our apathy is inversely proportional to our habits of consumption. The sentimental preoccupation with digitally mediated others translates into the withdrawal from the concrete burdens of our neighbors and, with it, the loss of the possibility of fulfillment on our parts.
We need both a seriousness and a playfulness that our culture cannot teach us; a seriousness borne out of reverence for the reality of God and a playfulness that both relishes redemption and satirizes the world’s absurdity.
Dying to the world, in the economy of grace, opens a subsequent possibility of living in and for the world. We live as though the conditions of the world were not what they are, though they still are (1 Cor. 7:29-31). But we are not lying if we insist they have no real existence because they are already dying. Their future is certain, and that future is rushing upon them now in the overlap of ages effected by Christ in the Spirit.
We need instilled in us a holy disregard for the falsehoods posing and preening as significant: teapot tempests on Facebook, attention-sucking TikTok videos, industry moguls and other purveyors of capitalist subjugation, reactionary and progressive demagoguery that is little but empty pleas and lies (Isa. 59:4). A universe does not exist in which any of this matters, and yet it constantly fills our thoughts. We cannot fill ourselves with a sanctified indifference, but we must be so filled so as to redirect our misplaced loves. We must be weaned from these preoccupations that obscure the anguish that devours us. Lenten practices can develop in us a principled withdrawal that resists the frenetic pace along which our gadgets and commercials yank us:
“Teach us to sit still/Even among these rocks/Our peace in His will.”
But at the very same time we need protection from a Gnosticism that goes too far and forbids our humanity by embracing only utilitarian function to the exclusion of good, beautiful, and hilarious things the world often overlooks and misguided zealots dismiss. The Lord’s preferential option for the overlooked and spurned (1 Cor. 1:26-29) must recalibrate us. Protect us, Lord, from worshiping these things and teach us how to use them properly. Instill in us a deep love for the small things we regularly fail to notice in our mad rush for relevance and nourish us as we make our pilgrimage. Teach us both to use and enjoy by both caring and not caring.
None of us would choose the desert: it is the antithesis of the life for which we most long. It is contrary to its nature to nourish and fulfill us. But in Christ, “the Word within/The world and for the world,” it can become a place of life (Isa. 43:19-21).
Ian Olson is a graduate student living with his wife and four children in southern Wisconsin and doing all he can to resist the gravitational pull of the world’s despair and commend what is excellent. He begs you to fight the demons and delete Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.