The Ash Wednesday Poet

I never watch football, and yet somehow I managed to watch the entire Super Bowl this year, but miss the best part: the halftime show where Beyonce performed her surprise single “Formation.” If you haven’t see it, you need to. On the one hand it’s all about Beyonce; it’s intensely personal and particular to her – a black, southern, successful, woman. The video that goes with it is startling; though watching dozens of young black women in outfits referencing the black power movement was also a jolt. The video features a fantastical New Orleans during and after Katrina, a child dancing in front of a row of cops, beautiful black women in white.

Beyonce dropped this single on what would have been Trayvon Martin’s birthday and the day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s birthday. It’s angry and beautiful and sexy and powerful all at once. It’s earthy and transcendent. The final image is of Beyonce sinking down into the waters of Katrina on a NOPD squad car and we don’t know whether it’s a drowning or a baptism or both. It speaks to me and to many, but it’s so very much hers. That’s the way poetry is.

T.S. Eliot, the writer of the poem we heard a part of this morning, also shared his own particular and searing pain hoping to communicate to the masses. He came of age in a time of madness. A young man searching for knowledge and truth, he headed to Germany just as World War I began. He was almost caught up in the carnage that slaughtered a generation; Eliot was able to watch it from afar in England where he worked and wrote his poetry with the literati of the day.

It’s hard for me to imagine what that must have been like, to watch the destruction of a civilization that seemed to be at its height. For an intellectual, it was deeply troubling. If ideas could save us, if more knowledge and less ignorance could possibly be the answer to the plague of darkness that can descend upon us from time to time, then Germany, France, and England would have been a paradise. Instead they became hell on earth and humanity descended into its worst. Young men with minds and hearts and hopes were only so much meat before the machine guns and gas. Yes, it’s hard to imagine the shock of this failure on the part of culture and knowledge. It’s still shocking, a century later. But it must have been utterly devastating to a young man with a bright intellectual future before him. What use could the gift of the mind be in such a world?

And so began Eliot’s long struggle to seek for, to strive after answers. If knowledge and culture cannot save us, what can? His solution was quite a shock to his literary comrades. Virginia Woolf thought he’d lost his mind when he converted to Anglo-Catholicism and teased him for his faith in ancient rituals and prayers.

Ash Wednesday is called Eliot’s conversion poem. But conversion can conjure up images of “road to Damascus” like scenes, a flash of light followed by a sudden change of heart. That was not how Eliot talked about his turn to faith, as an emotionally messy affair of the heart. No, his conversion was the result of his striving with his mind and his will.

In trying to convey his faith, to share his experience in his art Eliot returns to his struggle for answers. “Because I do not hope to turn again” repeated again and again are words of weariness as he ascends a lonely staircase so spiraled that it’s hard to tell if he’s ascending to something or just going around in circles. He finds himself open to religious experience even in an age when all religion is looked at as a kind of defeatism, an escape. And that makes his journey lonely, but the futility of other answers, a secular way of thinking that makes sense of the madness eludes him and pushes him forward.

He asks the question of what kind of new and fresh and alive religious experience can come from what seem to be the hollow religious symbols and rituals of the Church. Eliot’s answer is that the symbols and rituals have to be grounded in the body, in the experience of being in our bodies. It is that experience that gives language meaning and our symbols have no purpose if they are not grounded in the reality of experience. The reality of his struggle for faith, his despair, his hopelessness, fill the symbols with meaning.

It can seem like heady stuff. I have to admit I think I only half understand Eliot’s poem and only partially comprehend his struggle. Or perhaps I am just confusing it with my own.

In the gospel, Jesus warns of the emptiness of religious rituals evacuated of their power. They become dry and dull, mere conventions without any meaning. This is always a dilemma for the preacher on Ash Wednesday – how to frame Jesus’ admonishment about empty public rituals while we invite people to engage in a public ritual.

Eliot invites us to be open to the experience of being completely vulnerable, of needing, and thirsting, of beseeching and yearning. It is when we ground ourselves in our need and hunger for something beyond the madness of human folly or the partial answers that culture and intellect can give us that ash and oil on our foreheads can have meaning. When we return to the ground of our exhausted minds and bodies, the words “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” can be profound truth.

In this service, we invite you to observe a holy Lent. For many of us, that has, in the past, been an empty ritual. It has been, for many of us, a time when we’re supposed to practice being good. It’s about thinking about the many ways that we’re bad and then be sorry about it. Another poet, Mary Oliver wrote, “You do not have to be good, You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That is a good invitation to a Holy Lent. Oliver, like Eliot, uses poetry to call us back to the small animal of our bodies.

The practice of giving up is only helpful if it is grounded in attention to that small animal. Is what you’re giving up getting in the way of paying attention to what you need, what you love, what you’re truly thirsting after? Well, good. Let it go! If giving it up is another distraction that is just supposed to keep you busy looking virtuous for forty days, then don’t do it.

The poet dares us to simply be alive to our own need, our own thirst and that grounding ourselves in our lived experience will bring transcendence. Whether that experience is like Beyonce’s – a reclamation of a country past and unrepentant about her glamorous present – or Eliot’s agonizing climb.

It’s a bold claim; it’s a claim of faith that God will meet us where we are, in whatever desert we find ourselves. It’s the claim that we make on Ash Wednesday that we are each and all the earthy stuff of bones and ashes, but out of that experience can come joy, illumination, beauty, and most of all, love. Blessings on our Lenten Journey.

Ash Wednesday, Part I by T. S. 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