19 February 2015

‘Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.’

Sunset at Skerries Harbour ... the venue for the Ash Wednesday retreat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

19 February 2015

5 p.m., Choral Evensong

Readings: Psalm 25; Daniel 9: 1-14; I John 1: 3-10.

This week, there are two themes running through our chapel services:

1, The Spirituality of Movies: I began speaking about this on Monday morning, and this theme continues this evening, with the beginning of Lenten programme of Movies organised by David Browne for the Lay Training programme;

2, Lent: we began Lent with our Ash Wednesday retreat in Skerries yesterday, and from now until Easter we shall be praying the Lenten Collect in Chapel each day, and muting the doxology at the end of Psalms and Canticles, and no longer saying or singing Gloria.

But I want to draw those two themes together at Evening Prayer this evening.

Later this evening, I am handing out briefing notes for next week’s movie, which is Tom & Viv, the story of the fraught an turbulent marriage of TS Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

They were married 100 years ago, in 1915, and he died 50 years ago, on 4 January 1965. And apart from her health, physical and psychiatric, one of the contributors to the breakdown of their marriage, according to this movie, is Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, 12 years after the marriage.

It is a controversial argument, one that most of the critics and reviewers did not accept, and perhaps one that we shall discuss next week after viewing the movie.

The movie also argues, contentiously, that Viv was Eliot’s muse when it came to writing ‘The Waste Land.’

But Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, which was followed immediately by baptism and confirmation, inspired some of his greatest poems, including ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon,’ as well as what is regarded as his conversion poem, ‘Ash Wednesday.’ This poem has been described as “the greatest achievement of Eliot’s poetry.”

This poem was published in its complete form 1930, three years after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 and it appears in his Selected Poems before his other first Christian works, the ‘Ariel Poems,’ including ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) and ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928).

Eliot was baptised by the Revd William Force Stead (1884-1967) in Holy Trinity Church, Finstock, a small and locked village church outside Witney, on 29 June 1927. Stead was a fellow American, a poet and the chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. It was Stead who first encouraged Eliot to read the poems of George Herbert and John Donne and the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. A day later, Stead brought Eliot for confirmation in his private chapel by the Bishop of Oxford, Thomas Banks Strong, a former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

The complete form of ‘Ash Wednesday’ was first published in April 1930, but three of the five sections had already been published earlier as separate poems between 1927 and 1929.

The poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God.

‘Ash Wednesday’ is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. The poem is concerned with personal salvation in an age of uncertainty, where the weariness of giving up to a creed weighs heavily on the speaker:

(Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?)
“Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Eliot’s journey to Christianity was along a long and winding path. Yet this poem, which is not so much about God as a prayer to God, displays a great spiritual maturity in a relatively new convert.

‘Ash Wednesday’ constitutes the greatest leap in Eliot’s verse and life and the greatest pause in his poetic writings before the hiatus between his plays and The Four Quartets.

In ‘Ash Wednesday,’ Eliot’s poetic persona has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith. That faith demands complete submission, including the admission that faith must ultimately come from without because what is within has been exhausted. ‘Ash Wednesday’ admits powerlessness as a prelude to, or a requirement for, salvation.

Yet if ‘Ash Wednesday’ is about penitence, it is also about repentance. The opening lines, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX, use the verb “turn” three times. “Turn” echoes the Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metanoia), literally “changing one’s mind” – as the prophets called on Israel to “turn back, turn from your wicked ways.”

‘Ash Wednesday’ forms a personal liturgy. It is a song of death and hoped-for rebirth, a song of hope while doubting hope, a song of faith while seeking faith, a song of love for one who has known little love, a prayer for mercy that acknowledges mercy as undeserved.

The stairs in the turret in Holy Cross Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Most readers are familiar with Eliot’s references to the stairs in ‘Ash Wednesday,’ which recall his life-long preoccupation with Dante, who, in Purgatorio, has seven ascending stairs that encircle Purgatory.

Part I of ‘Ash Wednesday,’ ‘Perch’io non Spero’ (Because I do not hope), was first published in the Spring 1928 issue of Commerce along with a French translation. It draws on a 14th century poem by Guido Cavalcanti, and a versicle prior to the Mass on Ash Wednesday: “Deus tu converses vivificabis nos” (“Lord, thou wilt turn again and quicken us”). It also draws on one of the traditional readings in The Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2: 12-17), which urges a turning – and a re-turning – to God: “Turn ye even to me, saith the Lord, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning …turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2: 12, 13).

Part I of ‘Ash Wednesday’ is composed of five stanzas with a couplet from the Anglican liturgy at the end. Each stanza calls for a different renunciation.

The first is renunciation of hope, hope in this world for past diversions that might threaten his new-found faith.

The eagle may be the eagle that represents Saint John the Divine in iconography – the Prologue of his Gospel later punctuates Part V.

Stanza 2 renounces the hope of fulfilment in this world, acknowledging that the “positive hour” of the “one veritable transitory power” is evanescent, thus the seemingly timeless moment of bliss or power in this existence is no longer a hope.

In Stanza 3, he rejoices in his own helplessness to change human condition, and so renounces the blessed face of this world and the voice of temptation within it.

If this sounds self-centred, then in Stanza 4 he defines what this entails: “And pray to God to have mercy upon us.” There is no going back.

Stanza 5 recalls the imagery of Stanza 1:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air.

Then comes a direct appeal to God:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

The concluding couplet reminds us that now and the hour of our death are really the same, and the pilgrim again asks for mercy.

Throughout the poem Eliot quotes from Dante, the canticle Magnificat, the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel, the Prophet Micah, the Reproaches, and The Book of Common Prayer.

‘At the first turning of the second stair’ ... the stairs to my rooms in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge some years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ash Wednesday, TS Eliot


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?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

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 blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
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 judgement 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.

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

Concluding Hymn:

‘The place of solitude where three dreams cross / Between blue rocks …’ … blue waters and small boats in front of Skerries Sailing Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot’s second wife, Valerie Fletcher does not feature in the movie at all, and was offended by the way her husband was portrayed. But in a light moment she once recalled that when he was interviewing her for a job as his secretary, they spent much of the time talking about the poetry of George Herbert.

So our concluding hymn this evening is a poem by George Herbert set to an arrangement by William Sandys, ‘Teach me my God and King’ (Hymn 601).

This reflection was shared at Choral Evensong in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on 19 February 2015.

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