08 November 2022

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG
and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Tuesday 8 November 2022

‘And we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … an outdoor game of chess in the grounds of the Hunt Museum in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the Saints and Martyrs of England with a Lesser Festival (8 November 2022).

The date when Christianity first came to these islands is not known, but bishops from Britain attended the Council of Arles in the year 314, indicating a Church with order and worship. Since those days, Christians from these lands have shared the message of the good news at home and around the world. As the worldwide fellowship of the Anglican Communion has developed, incorporating peoples of many nations and cultures, individual Christian men and women have shone as beacons, heroically bearing witness to their Lord, some through a simple life of holiness, others by giving their lives for the sake of Christ.

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.’

‘Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … fruitful vines in Panormos, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

John 17: 18-23 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 18 ‘As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

‘A Game of Chess’, Part 2 of ‘The Waste Land’, employs alternating narrations, with vignettes of several characters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Waste Land 2: ‘A Game of Chess’

In 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses, TS Eliot published ‘The Waste Land.’ 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 – this was the same year James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris. ‘The Waste Land’ 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 second section, of ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘A Game of Chess,’ employs alternating narrations, in which vignettes of several characters address those themes experientially.

In ‘The Waste Land,’ TS Eliot constantly uses images of the undead as a metaphor for modern life. For Eliot, our society has become so spiritually numb that we cannot even really say if we are alive or dead anymore.

The title of the second section, ‘A Game of Chess,’ is also symbolic of the wicked play with emotions and sexual desires. Eliot’s reference to Cleopatra is significant because it indicates the destructive effects of excessive desire. In the case of the lovers Antony and Cleopatra, their inability to control their sexual desires has wiped out a whole empire. This failure to control desire is considered the central reason behind the discontent and degeneration of modern civilisation.

In ‘A Game of Chess’, Eliot compares humans to simple pieces like those on a chessboard, and the people who inhabit ‘The Waste Land’ are afraid of salvation.

Looking at the post-war condition of society, he portrays the people, who live in a waste land, and have been squeezed into a desperate situation just like pieces in a game of chess.

In line with the ‘Fisher King’ myth, which underlies the infertility of humanity in the post-war period, the couples in this section have no communication with each other, and, therefore, there is no love and reproduction.

The concept of nothingness, which also stands for the social reality in the 1920s, dominates the whole poem, with this part being no exception.

The solitary married couple, whose failing efforts at conversation are dramatised in ‘A Game of Chess,’ symbolise the loss of intimacy in the better-parts of modern society. They are alone together, the wife mad to be loved to the point of being unlovable, the husband receding into himself further with every passing moment.

In the vignette that follows, we move to a working-class pub, where we meet Lil, a woman whose fertility has been tested to the point of desperation by a husband who, in his brutishness, could hardly rise even to the most modest levels of love for his wife. The middle-class couple appears so isolated they cannot imagine physical intimacy, while Lil and her husband are broken by the emptiness of their iterated physical union.

The citizens of the modern world, Eliot suggests, are like bones broken off from a once complete body, bones once enfleshed in an organic human community bound by love. Eliot traces the source of this fragmentation to the modern attempt to substitute romantic love for the love of God, erasing two distinct realities by conflating them and, in the process, putting much too great a sanctifying pressure on intimacies.

In his Clark lectures, Eliot would trace this tendency back to the Spanish mystics, particularly to Saint Teresa of Avila, who tried to make the life of divine contemplation too psychological, to make it too much resemble the incommunicable, because of the entirely private, intimacy of man and woman. The consequence of such conflation is that we lose the capacity to imagine religious belief in itself as we try to make romance its stand-in.

It is only later in ‘A Game of Chess’ that this fragile sense of order starts to break down.

This section could also refer to the loss of religion and spirituality in modern life, which leaves people speechless when it comes to figuring out what to do with their lives.

These lines speak about how people wish to kill time in their lives, staying up all night and playing a game of chess. In this sense, perhaps Eliot means that without spirituality, modern life is just a long game we play with ourselves, always competing, setting goals, and simply ‘playing the game.’

‘… where the glass / Doubled the flames of the sevenbranched candelabra’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … a menorah or seven-branched candelabra in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today’s Prayer (Tuesday 8 November 2022):

The Collect:

God, whom the glorious company of the redeemed adore,
assembled from all times and places of your dominion:
we praise you for the saints of our own land
and for the many lamps their holiness has lit;
and we pray that we also may be numbered at last
with those who have done your will
and declared your righteousness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
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, the source of all holiness
and giver of all good things:
may we who have shared at this table
as strangers and pilgrims here on earth
be welcomed with all your saints
to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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:

Bring release to those with abiding memories of hurt and injury, especially in the Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ukraine and all those places where peace seems so elusive.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Footsteps shuffled on the stair’ (TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’) … stairs in the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, Tamworth (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

In ‘A Game of Chess’, Eliot speaks of the loss of religion and spirituality in modern life … Sephardic and Asheknazic chess figures in a shop window in Murano in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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