09 November 2022

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG
and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Wednesday 9 November 2022

Saint Augustine depicted in a stained glass window by George W Walsh in Saint Augustine’s Church, Galway … ‘The Fire Sermon’ draws heavily on Saint Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Margery Kempe, Mystic (ca 1440) with a commemoration (9 November 2022).

Margery Kempe was born in King’s Lynn in Norfolk in the late 14th century, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. She received many visions, several of them of the holy family, one of the most regular being of the crucifixion. She also had conversations with the saints. She was much sought after as a visionary, was endlessly in trouble with the Church, rebuked by the Archbishop, and was more than once imprisoned.

Following the messages in her visions, she undertook pilgrimages to many holy places, including Walsingham, Canterbury, Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem, often setting out penniless. She was blessed with the gift of tears and seems to have been favoured with singular signs of Christ’s love, whereby for long periods she enjoyed consciousness of a close communion with him and developed a strong compassion for the sins of the world. Her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, recounts her remarkable life. She died in the mid-15th century.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ first published 100 years ago, in 1922;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘… where the walls / Of Magnus Martyr hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionic white and gold’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … Saint Magnus Martyr Church is one of two London churches named in ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 17: 11-19 (NRSVA):

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13nthey called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song …/Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … Fishmongers Hall and London Bridge seen from the South Bank near Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Waste Land 3: ‘The Fire Sermon’

TS Eliot published ‘The Waste Land’ in 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses. The poem includes well-known phrases such as ‘April is the cruellest month,’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ Recent studies see in ‘The Waste Land’ a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage from the Unitarianism of his childhood to his life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

‘The Waste Land’, which I am reflecting on throughout this week, was first published 100 years ago at the end in 1922. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Its opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.

‘The Waste Land’ was published in Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922. It was then published in the US in the November issue of The Dial, and was published in book form in December 1922.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, I am dipping in and out of the five sections of The Waste Land in this prayer diary each day this week. ‘The Waste Land’ is divided into five sections:

1, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair.

2, ‘A Game of Chess’, employs alternating narrations, in which vignettes of several characters address those themes experientially.

3, ‘The Fire Sermon’, offers a philosophical meditation in relation to the imagery of death and views of self-denial in juxtaposition, influenced by Augustine of Hippo and Eastern religions.

4, ‘Death by Water’, includes a brief lyrical petition.

5, ‘What the Thunder Said’, the culminating fifth section, concludes with an image of judgment.

The third section, of ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Fire Sermon,’ offers a philosophical meditation in relation to the imagery of death and views of self-denial in juxtaposition, influenced by Saint Augustine of Hippo and Eastern religions.

The title of this, the longest section of ‘The Waste Land’, is from a sermon by Buddha in which he encourages his followers to give up earthly passions, symbolised by fire, and to seek freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly does indeed take place in this section, as a series of increasingly debased sexual encounters concludes with a river-song and a religious incantation.

A fisherman’s bar is described, then a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. Even amidst the moral and physical decay of the Thames River that is depicted in the first stanzas of ‘The Fire Sermon,’ Eliot juxtaposes one physical place, the ruined river, with another place, the Church of Saint Magnus Martyr:

O City city, I can sometimes hear
beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

Eliot is recalling an important church in London, the sounds associated with it, and the sights of the people there, which is indicative of his strong attachment to senses and to memory.

These seven lines are a brief digression from a section in ‘The Waste Land’ that is dedicated entirely to describing the vices that are ‘on fire’ in London as the consequences of excessive passions. But the few lines where the poet turns his eyes to Saint Magnus Martyr display a shift in Eliot’s use of sensory experience: the senses, here, are used in a reverent way to remember and contemplate something transcendent of which the church is a vestige.

John Betjeman would later write: ‘the whole district smells of fish, but inside the church there is the abrupt change to a smell of incense.’

In a footnote, Eliot says the interior of the church is ‘one of the finest among Wren’s interiors.’ Barry Spurr notes that Saint Magnus Martyr ‘was one of the leading shrines of the Anglo-Catholic movement and it is very notable that Eliot should not only refer to it, but, in the midst of a poem of almost unrelieved negativity, present it so positively (if somewhat uncomprehendingly) in terms of the exquisite beauty of its interior: its “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold”.’

Spurr points out that white and gold are ‘the liturgical colours … of Eastertide and resurrection, a concept otherwise denied repeatedly throughout ‘The Waste Land’.’

Father George Every told Spurr that Eliot started frequenting the High Mass at Saint Magnus the Martyr after World War I, and that ‘the influence of the liturgy on the drama was indeed apparent to him before he was a believer. Images out of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion belong to this time.’ Eliot first enjoyed Saint Magnus aesthetically for its ‘splendour’ and that later he appreciated its ‘utility’ when he came there as a sinner.

This section also refers to Queen Victoria Street, but neither of the two churches on the street, Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf and Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, are named in this section. On the other hand, this section includes portions of many musical pieces, including Spenser’s wedding song, a soldier’s ballad, a nightingale’s chirps, a song from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and a mandolin tune, which has no words but is echoed in ‘a clatter and a chatter from within’.

Mr Eugenides, a Greek merchant from Smyrna in this section, is probably the one-eyed merchant of Madame Sosostris’s tarot pack. His pocket is full of currants, small, seedless and dried grapes that are the deadened version of fertile fruits and the product of The Waste Land, from the infertile land of the Fisher King. His pocket full of this product foreshadows a dark future.

In his notes, Eliot describes ‘The Waste Land’ as a commentary on ‘the present decay of Eastern Europe.’ It is an interesting remark, for one of the most terrifying symbols of that decay in 1922, as Eliot was finalising the text of ‘The Waste Land,’ was the burning of Smyrna.

The Turkish army captured Smyrna on 9 September 1922, promptly proclaimed a jihad and the atrocities against the Greek and Armenian communities began immediately. The Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos was murdered and as many as 100,000 Armenian and Greek Christians were slaughtered throughout the city.

The fire that broke out in Smyrna on 13 September 1922, four days after the capture of the city, is one of the greatest disasters in Greek and Turkish history. The city became the scene of the worst Turkish excesses against the Greek population of Anatolia, and most of the city was burned to the ground in a fire that raged for days.

As thousands of Christians were murdered, allied ships in the harbour stood idly by and for three days refused the pleas of a quarter of a million refugees huddled in terror on the quayside. In desperation, many jumped into the waters they escape their pursuers and drowned before the eyes of the very people who had the means to rescue them.

Raisins and currants were a major part of the trade of Greeks in Smyrna until then. Perhaps Eliot was conscious of the unsavoury and catastrophic consequences for Europe of the genocide of the Christians in Smyrna as he put the finishing touches to ‘The Waste Land,’ subconsciously giving this unsavoury character an identifiable Greek name, and indicating the death of the Christian way of life in major world event at that time.

The Agora in Smyrna … the genocide of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna by fire and drowning took place weeks before the publication of ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This section of the poem comes to an abrupt end with a few lines from Saint Augustine’s Confessions and a vague reference to the Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermon.’ Eliot claims to have deliberately conflated Augustine and the Buddha, as the representatives of Eastern and Western asceticism. Both seem, in the lines Eliot quotes, to be unable to transcend the world on their own: Augustine must call on God to ‘pluck [him] out,’ while Buddha can only repeat the word ‘burning,’ unable to break free of its monotonous fascination.

Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermon’ offer a solution for the social and cultural problems that Eliot expresses in his poem. Eliot weaves together the Christian and Buddhist texts in short and seemingly disconnected phrases.

The last five lines of ‘The Fire Sermon’ read:

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

The first, third, and fourth lines above are references to Saint Augustine’s Confessions, while the second and fifth lines refer to Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermon.’ Eliot presents Saint Augustine and Buddha as the exemplars of asceticism for their particular religious culture.

Eliot alludes to Buddha in order to point out that sensory experience without spiritual guidance is what ignites passions. The title, ‘The Fire Sermon,’ is a direct reference to a sermon in which Buddha, wandering with a congregation of priests, eventually turns to them and says: ‘All things, O priests, are on fire … And with what are these on fire? With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire.’

Eliot sees memory as a vital factor in spiritual salvation, and it is on this foundation that he introduces Saint Augustine’s Confessions as his solution to society’s moral problem.

‘To Carthage then I came’ is a reference to Book III of the Confessions, in which the young Augustine describes the first time he arrived in Carthage and saw how it was filled with worldly vices. The temptations Augustine sees in Carthage echo what Buddha is advising against in his sermon, and he makes use of the term ‘burning’ in the same way that Buddha used it in his Fire Sermon – as a negative way to describe the vices that pull on the soul and lead it to temptation and sin.

After the ‘burning burning burning burning’ cadence that follows the reference to Book III, Eliot draws on Book X in the Confessions:

O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

In Book X, Saint Augustine moves from his autobiographical narrative to examine the implications of his spiritual journey. Once he has established the importance of Christianity for spiritual salvation, he elaborates in the rest of the books in his Confessions on how to achieve salvation. Book X discusses the importance and power of memory throughout several chapters.

Saint Augustine does not limit his memory to himself. His ability to analyse and learn from the includes drawing on the faith of others, which creates a collective memory that strengthen his own faith.

The last line in ‘The Fire Sermon’ is the single word ‘burning.’ Perhaps Eliot is signalling to his readers that an absolute rejection of our senses, as Buddha advocated, should not be the solution to our depravity. Instead, our senses should be aided by our memory and our innate disposition towards the divine, much like Augustine did in his search for God.

There are places in ‘The Fire Sermon’ that reveal a remedy, if not a hope, for an ailing society. By using Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s ‘Fire Sermon’, Eliot is reminding us that the answers to our soul’s depravity are all around us, in our collective culture.

‘At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upwards from the desk …’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … the clock at Saint Magnus Martyr Church once hung over the access to London Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Wednesday 9 November 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘A New Commandment.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Sue Claydon, chair of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for all those working for peace within families, communities and nations, give them courage and strength in often difficult situations.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Buddha depicted on a panel at the Japanese Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes … ‘The Fire Sermon’ takes its title from a sermon by Buddha (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The statue of Oliver Goldsmith at Trinity College Dublin … Eliot quotes a song from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ in ‘The Waste Land’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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