We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I didn’t come across these rather well known words of T.S. Eliot until I was well into my twenties. I wonder sometimes how that’s possible, that there is some stunning nugget of truth that you just don’t stumble upon in your life and when you finally do you wonder why no one told you before. At the same time you wonder, why it is that the words you’ve just read for the first time, seem to be known in your very being. No one in my house read poetry and if my high school English teachers were to be believed the only twentieth century poet to ever write was Robert Frost. I do have a soft spot for Frost and his two roads diverged in a yellow wood. You have to admit, Eliot is a bit trickier to get your head around.
So when my now husband inscribed these words on the inside cover of a book he gave me on the occasion of my ordination, I didn’t have a clue what they meant. I mean I could tell they were powerful, even had an idea that they were speaking some sort of timeless truth but honestly, I had no clue what it was. Maybe I still don’t. but I will say that these words ironically began to make some sense to me when I stopped trying so hard to understand them and instead allowed them to wash over me and seep into my soul a bit.
I wrote a few volumes of poetry in my youth. But it’s a real art form and frankly I’ve always found it easier to write a sentence than a verse, easier to string words together in a coherent, logical way than a nuanced, lyrical one. Poetry leaves things unanswered, offers space for ambiguity. It insists you show up to the table, lay your story onto its verses and draw forward a thread of truth from the words of the poet through the eyes of your life. Which I suppose is part of the mixed frustration and appeal that poetry has for so many. It has a frustrating and relentless insistence that words can’t be captured that meaning and truth can’t be held like a prize in your hands, or safely stashed away for another day.
If you’ve come to church your whole life and think perhaps the bible offers enough wisdom for our purposes, that poetry really shouldn’t take the place of scripture I do agree that we could spend a lifetime immersed in the bible and there would be enough depth and mystery, enough elusive truths to keep us coming back for more. I turn to poetry today not to brush aside scripture but to perhaps bring to bear on scripture a refraction of light that might bring into relief a nuance of its truth. To think God stopped speaking when the biblical cannon was bound into a leather-clad book with red words directly quoting Jesus… is misleading. Maybe poetry will give you just a bit more permission to allow the truth of your life, your story to teach you something eternal about God.
To begin, please know this is not a T.S. Eliot lecture. I’d have asked my husband up here for that level of knowledge! I have no intention of unpacking all X pages of the Four Quartets poem in full. But there is one theme woven throughout that has captured my attention, a theme that feels rather compelling you might say rather timely.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
And before that Eliot alludes to the wisdom found in the book of Ecclesiastes, that familiar passage about there being a time for everything under heaven.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto
In my beginning is my end.
I’m curious about the idea of time and how Eliot plays with it, that there is no beginning or ending, that we keep coming back to where we began, only everything is different somehow. I often feel that time is pressing in on me. I see my children and how they’re nearly grown and wonder, like every parent before, where did the time go? I think of how I’ve been with you as a congregation for seven years and wonder, wow, what have I accomplished? And I think of Greta Thunberg the unlikely climate change crusader currently crossing the Atlantic on a solar powered yacht and she’s got me thinking about the race against time when it comes to our global response to climate change. You must feel it too sometimes, the pressure of time marching on? Do the years under your belt suggest you are nearing the end of your time on earth? Or do you have a lifetime ahead of you and wonder what you should possibly do with your life in this world that you’ve inherited? Do you wrestle with the way time doesn’t seem to give you a break, isn’t bringing the job or the fulfillment that it ought? Are the kids growing too fast, technology changing too quickly? Are there days when time feels a bit like the enemy, going too quickly or dragging on too long? Maybe as summer ends you’re wishing time would slow down, that it could just be more books and beaches, less hustle and bustle?
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
It’s like learning a whole new language. We know better what it is to have a destination in mind and to put in the hard work to get there but this language of exploring, it feels foreign. Yet this idea that all that exploring leads back to the same place but it’s different or your awareness of it is different. It’s a truth very much at the heart of the Christian gospel. Imagine, he suggests, that time is more than events accumulating upon events leading us to this current moment. Imagine it more like snapshots, moments. Is it perhaps when every moment of life offers a possibility to arrive and know a place anew in every moment of our lives, not just over the span of our years? It’s like you can be born again every instant, there are infinite second chances!
I wonder if Eliot as someone who read the scripture and endeavoured to live into its truth, I wonder if he was suggesting that the place we might arrive and know for the first time is the place of our beloved-ness? Jesus’ story, for all intents and purposes, begins not in Bethlehem but in the River Jordan as John baptizes him and a voice declares this is my beloved. Maybe that’s the truth we keep circling back to, and maybe the rest is distraction, the truths about how you are accomplished or gifted or able to pull off a plan for your life with perfect execution. I wonder if the place we know as if for the first time is the beloved-ness of us, and then you see in others their full humanity, their flicker of divinity. It seems to me the more deeply we know the place and the truth that we are beloved, the more we catch a glimpse God, the more we understand what it is God is calling forth from us. The more we understand that we are not alone, we do not need to be functional atheists, professing faith in God but taking care of things as if it’s all on our shoulders. The life long searching, the quest, the journey the reason we talk about practice in the Christian faith is so that we might learn again and again and the truth of God’s presence and the truth of your beloved-ness.
And this truth which you don’t need to wait a life time to arrive at, because it is the truth at the core of our soul an in your every cell, this truth when you glimpse it, taste it touch it and know it again as if for the first time, it has tremendous power to bring you to your knees, it calls for a surrender in a not my will God but yours – but not in some controlling God in the sky telling you how to live out your pre determined life sort of way, no this truth comes from deep within and you don’t surrender to the will of God because you’ve been defeated but because you’ve been liberated.
Martin Luther said: we “are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others.” Or as T.S. Eliot puts it we are distracted from distraction by distraction.
I can’t help but think of all the ways we sabotage our journey moment by moment back to the truth that we are beloved and not alone. My how we love to distract ourselves with notions of fight the good fight, get to the end point, pull off my goals.
When every single moment in life is calling us back to that truth of our beloved-ness, back to the beginning where we like Jesus can be splashed in the River Jordan and know deeper and truer that we are beloved. I am convinced that we offer our best to the world from that place. Because that’s the place from which we hear God’s voice
People ask me sometimes to give more structure, to provide a list, a set of rules, a how to be a Christian guide list. I’m told some other faith traditions make it more clear, that for Muslims you have the pillars, prayer and fasting, pilgrimage… And Jews have their commandments and more. And I can give somewhat of a list or sacraments like communion and baptism and many other practices but that’s a sermon for another day.
When Jesus was asked what is the most important law he insisted it is to love God with all your heart AND to love your neighbour as yourself. As we grow and evolve, as generation passes generation or simply as we show up one moment to the next in our lives, we learn more about who our neighbour is, hopefully we learn more about who we are and see new glimpses of God. Not only does every generation need to come back to the centre ,everyone of us needs to return to the centre and learn again moment by moment what it is to love God, self and neighbour.
I think we sometimes want God to not be so with us because we have been handed a bill of goods that insists God is judging us, testing us, testing your strength and resolve, inviting you toward you breaking point. Are we afraid of getting close to the divine. Or maybe our reluctance comes more from Jesus showing us a little too well what a life lived in God’s time means, the gifts and costs?
You are my beloved is of course not an inoculation against disappointment, it’s not a promise that you’ll get a prime spot in heaven any more than it is a promise that your life will be easy. But that still point, that timeless beginning grounds us in a way, envelops us in a love so strong we can’t help but respond, can’t help but find our way to living a life in Christ.
If you’re wondering what to do with your one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver will ask next week, you can only find the answer from the place that Eliot describes, that beginning place where you keep returning, tapping into that grace, that’s what will guide your life from distraction to purpose. I’m not a poet but I think there’s something to it. Some invitation in the timelessness of time worth risking the cost of… As Eliot says:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards, at the still point there the dance is…