Tag Archives: Poetry

Four Quartets

Four Quartets

by T. S. Eliot (1943)

I understand and acknowledge that poetry is a little off the beaten track of expectations for recommended spiritual reading, but this is not typical poetry. It reads like a meditation, and in some parts, almost like scripture, or at least sermon. Eliot was a deeply spiritual man and struggled greatly to make sense of some of the tragic aspects of his life, one being the descent into insanity of his first wife, another being the realization of a love that could never be consummated. (Happily, he ultimately found love with somebody completely devoted to him, yet since it happened when he was relatively advanced in age, it too had an element of tragedy in that it was all too short.)

The Four Quartets is actually a series of four long poems consisting of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, which were originally released gradually, one at a time. If you pay attention, you will see things that hearken to St. John of the Cross, such as references to the “darkness of God” in part III of East Coker:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on              darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long                     between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of                      nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                                        You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
     You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

– pp. 27-29

Here also is part IV of East Coker:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

    Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

     The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

     The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

     The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

– pp. 29-30

 Here is another astounding passage from section V of The Dry Salvages:

More reflective moments

UPDATE: An unexpected find of a recording of Eliot reading the entire poem.

 

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The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (primarily The Dark Night)

by St. John of the Cross (1585: The Dark Night commentary is completed)

The Dark Night (or as it is oftentimes called “The Dark Night of the Soul“) is the best known of the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite priest who was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila.

The Dark Night would most likely be the main attraction of a volume of his collected works, as it was for me. But there are three other major works that are also quite worthwhile: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. All four are based off of the same general pattern. First there is a poem of some length, broken into stanzas, usually five lines each. Then what follows is a commentary that takes one stanza at a time and shows how these stanzas, by design, apply to the spiritual principles St. John is trying to illuminate for us.

Like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross is not easy reading. Therefore, like I  did for The Interior Castle, I once again strongly advise the reading of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within beforehand.

As it turns out for me, I found myself liking The Living Flame of Love as much if not more than The Dark Night.

As John is such a superior and gifted writer and theologian, let’s share some excerpts.

First, from The Ascent of Mount Carmel, we have a passage that could serve as a summary of God Wants You Happy by Father Jonathan Morris. It comes from Book Two, Chapter 6, section 1 (which covers the second stanza):

The theological virtues perfect the faculties of the soul and produce emptiness and darkness in them.

1. We must discuss the method of leading the three faculties (intellect, memory, and will) into this spiritual night, the means to divine union. But we must first explain how the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity (related to those faculties as their proper supernatural objects), through which the soul is united with God, cause the same emptiness and darkness in their respective faculties: faith in the intellect, hope in the memory, and charity in the will. Then we shall explain how in order to journey to God the intellect must be perfected in the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.

As a result it will be seen how necessary it is for the soul, if it is to walk securely, to journey through this dark night with the support of these three virtues. They darken and empty it of all things. As we said, the soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, or through enjoyment, or through imagination, or through any other sense; but only faith, hope, and charity (according to the intellect, memory, and will) can unite the soul with God in this life.

– pg. 166

Next, from The Dark Night, we have another concentrated dose which comes from Book Two, Chapter 11, section 3:

3. This happens very particularly in this dark purgation, as was said, since God so weans and recollects the appetites that they cannot find satisfaction in any of their objects. God proceeds thus so that by both withdrawing the appetites from other objects and recollecting them in himself, he strengthens the soul and gives it the capacity for this strong union of love, which he begins to accord by means of this purgation. In this union the soul loves God intensely with all its strength and all its sensory and spiritual appetites. Such love is impossible if these appetites are scattered by their satisfaction in other things. In order to  receive the strength of this union of love, David exclaimed to God: I will keep my strength for you [Ps. 59:9], that is, all the ability, appetites, and strength of my faculties, by not desiring to make use of them or find satisfaction in anything outside of you.

– pg. 420

And finally, from The Living Flame of Love, the commentary on Stanza 1, section 24:

24. Not many people undergo so strong a purgation, only those whom God wishes to elevate to the highest degree of union. For he prepares individuals by a purification more or less severe in accordance with the degree to which he wishes to raise them, and also according to their impurity and imperfection.

This suffering resembles that of purgatory. Just as the spirits suffer purgation there so as to be able to see God through a clear vision in the next life, souls in their own way suffer purgation here on earth so as to be able to be transformed in him through love in this life.

– pg. 651

NOTE: John of the Cross was influential on many saints and saints-to-be, such as Térèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein (see her Science of the Cross), and John Paul II, who wrote one of his two doctoral dissertations on John of the Cross.