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Here, and only here, I have made no secret of the fact that I am teaching at an institution that is taking an increasingly fundamentalist turn. Since this turn is never official, quite, but always implicit, coded, and anesthetic as a mosquito bite, anodyne as a platitude, I have little I can point to specifically. However, this year we have had a new Hudibras-like leader [Hudibras is the "trew-blew Puritain knight" who went a-colonelling] require that all faculty attend the weekly "chapel" services. This was probably a mistake, as having even a like-minded body of cranky and educated people forced to do something is bound to generate ill will, and not everyone is like minded.

I have a great deal to say, from an anthropological point of view, about these services. They start with a "praise band," for example. (Imagine someone raided the Nirvana songbook and replaced the lyrics with collages from Psalms.) (That this is unnecessary, given songs like "Rape Me"'s reference to Christian poetry like Donne's "Batter My Heart" is too daring a conclusion.) What moves me most, though, is the central point of the practical theology: Everyone out THERE is unsaved, and many in here are unsaved.

Far be it from me to engage in Christian theology on a political website. It's possible to trace this missionary impulse's extension into all elements of the contemporary world into elections, campaigns, and attitudes toward fellow citizens, but I only want to talk about a poem. You see, the effect of the edict that we must all attend has been that I keep feeling sad rather than angry, and I keep remembering that youth never knows itself, that youth's beauty and danger is passion, and that I could not hope to explain or justify to my students why I sit on the last pew and look miserable.

I could retreat into any number of well constructed literary defenses -- that is one of the purposes of a liberal education, but I come to "Little Gidding," by T. S. Eliot. It's the last of his Four Quartets, and it's a tough read. What makes it hard, though, is not what is on the page, but what is in the reader's life.

Follow down, and I will explain why "Little Gidding" is a poem for a point in life, not a meaning in mind, and why its message, divorced from the bloodless ecumenism of the 1960's, answers the exclusion and expunging of the fundamentalists with an expiating and purgatorial hope.

First, I'm sorry about the Latinate diction. It happens when a body reads Eliot. Second, I suppose I should explain what it is, really, that's bugging me about today's Southern Baptist young.

I hate the idea of violating the copyright on The Four Quartets, and so I will restrain my quoting to fair use as best I can. However, if a person wishes to read the four poems, or just the full "Little Gidding," here is a good online text without silly people stamping on it.

Nearby -- and I would show you, if I knew how to make photos display on DailyKos -- there is a Tabernacle Baptist with a gigantic Quonset Hut style Assembly hall. If the Puritans were still around, they would approve of the lack of beauty, but they might wonder a bit if they went inside these places and saw all the LCD projectors and screens and amplifiers and the like. The group that would not allow stained glass or church music might be suspicious of such things. At any rate, leaving the 300 space parking lot, there is a sign in front of the congregant, on the highway, so that each must see it as she or he leaves: "Now Entering the Mission Field."

In other words, the moment a member of that particular church leaves, he is a missionary attempting to ferret out and convert the ungodly. Other Christians in the area might be a mite miffed. However, a student (yes, a student) told me the other day that I should sit at the front pew and "get the Word."  A speaker at a previous service told the students that there were "between 4.2 and 5.8 billion unsaved people in the world," and that this was because they -- the students and other members of their religion -- had not spread the word. I thought this was blaming the sheep in the pasture for the wolves in the wood, myself, and later preachers would tell the students that those wolves were, in fact, Satan in person.

I do not wish to say "No." I do not wish to sway or swerve any person in the passion of young faith. Anger, faith, exuberance -- all of the energy of youth is a force for construction or destruction, both of self and society, and the fire of time will mollify the flame of youthfulness without anyone's intervention.

The story of "Little Gidding" is the story of transcendence. When I was young, Eliot's poetry saved me from the desert of suburbia. I dwelt among the savages of lawn care products and the sophisticates of mortgage schemes. I longed for stimulation, and my high school had none. (It actually had a good bit, but it seemed too little.) I found the knotted poetry of "Prufrock" bracing, and its melancholy celebration of the intellectual in a shattered world sounded like my journey through the middle class waste land. I had the luxury of being born after Eliot stopped writing poetry, and so I could read his whole life's work in a small volume. Like a boxed set of CD's, I didn't have to wait for the next release or appreciate any maturation or history between releases. I could just keep going.

"Oooh, this one has big heavy symbols," I would say, and I would proceed to chew through the lines. That is, I did until I got to the Quartets. I couldn't understand them. Oh, there were references to Julian of Norwich, and I read her and Cloud of Unknowing, and I'm grateful, but I didn't get it. The message was too simple.

Later in my life, I realized that my younger self had not appreciated anything of the Eliot poetry. I had been a decoder ring, not a reader. I missed the fact that the narrator of "Portrait of a Lady" is a jerk, a cad. I did not understand that Prufrock is a sap. I didn't catch the fact that "The Hollow Men" are the bankers caught in the blinding light of revelation. I had been young, been filled with passion and intellect without any soul, and I had read that way. The Quartets are poems of soul atop the intellect.

"Little Gidding" itself, as a place, was a small Utopian community that worked. Don't be surprised. Many Utopias have worked just fine. They usually do not work for long or over a large area. Usually, religious communities manage socialism and Utopian organization, because they cohere around a faith that keeps members giving. Monasteries are socialist. The Shakers managed quite well. The Oneida group worked. So did Little Gidding, but Little Gidding was orthodox.

In the poem, Eliot speaks of something that W. H. Auden would also elaborate on, later. In The Dyer's Hand, Isherwood and Auden would talk about kairos as an hybrid of Existentialist and mystic knowledge. In "Little Gidding," Eliot is speaking fairly clearly of the places and times where time and place become meaningless because of God. Where W.B. Yeats would want history to overlap and "gyre" and spiral and spring, that would put the agency on time itself.

For the Christian mystic, it is not the place, not the day, not the time, and not the person that makes for transcendence, but God and the interchange of the eternal with the temporal.

"You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always." -- Little Gidding I

Where prayer, which is more than words, sounds, and volition, has been valid (accomplished, heard, communicated, literally), the dead may speak with the living in a language that is beyond the language we use in a moment that is never and always and not this place but this place. The temptation to say, "So all religions are the same" is overwhelming, but that's nowhere implied, because the reason for the transcendence is the single reality.

The compound ghost tells the narrator,

"And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
     My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
     These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
     By others, as I pray you to forgive
     Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice." -- Little Gidding II

All that theology, all that elaboration and argument, and all the zeal, are needed, but they are needed for a purpose. This, I fear, is the most troublesome truth standing here, amid the ardor. The machinery of faith does have its place, does have its function, but we must set it aside when the beast is full. It is a husk of meaning.

Even as I rage at and against the hubris of a religiosity that believes that only "conversion" is belief, that has the audacity to judge every non-congregant an unbeliever, that has the presumption to know the content of another's soul and mind by observing non-conformity, I have to hope that one day, too, they can arrive at the place. I have to forgive the good and the bad alike, as both are paths.

If you, too, find yourself beset by exclusive commands, take a look at Eliot's farewell to poetry. After The Four Quartets, there was nothing more that poetry could do.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 07:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Spiritual Organization of Unapologetic Liberals at Daily Kos, DKOMA, Indigo Kalliope, Street Prophets , and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I am old enough that I should understand (9+ / 0-)

    but now, I know that I have not read Elliot. Thank you! I will go and read.

    •  Lovely but difficult (7+ / 0-)

      The biggest advice I would have is to take all those guides, all those decoder rings, and throw them away, or at least hide them.

      It's a poem about a place. The poet goes there during World War II and sees in it his own past, his spiritual need, and the Eternal. We, I think, get from it that loving hope that, as he says, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well in the land of our beseeching."

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 09:56:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And that line was not original (10+ / 0-)

        to Eliot, but came from the Christian mystic Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). Wiki

        Now to try to end the wars we ask our gay and straight soldiers to fight. -- Chris Hayes

        by Cali Scribe on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 10:32:39 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Quite, although altered (10+ / 0-)

          No, it's from Juliana.

          However, she wrote, in her 25th Revelation of Divine Love "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.... in the land of our beseeching." Eliot put the place in with the verb.

          I've always been stunned at the universalism of her revelation and that it received both the nihil obstat and imprimatur.  Even though universalism is officially heterodox, Juliana's vision is authentic in all traditions. (She also maintains reconciliation of good and evil only after the end of all time.)

          Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

          by The Geogre on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 11:11:46 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I have an icon of Julian of Norwich at my desk (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            JBL55, The Geogre

            And I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  Her revelations speak across the divide of years and dogma.

            •  I'd love to see it. (0+ / 0-)

              Is it hand-painted or did it come from an catalogue for which you might be able to provide a link?  

              "The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another." ~ George Bancroft (1800-1891)

              by JBL55 on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 05:02:24 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  It's a greeting card (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                Here is a link to the card itself.  The artist, Robert Lentz, specializes in icons, many of them of progressive saints or Servants of God.  I also have his lovely take on Dorothy Day, who should be a saint for her work with the poor but probably won't be canonized any time soon because of her radical politics.

                •  Oh, wow. (0+ / 0-)

                  Amazing.  I need to check out that web site!

                  Here is our latest icon -- we use them at our monthly Taize service and it's been a great addition, especially since starting next month we'll be sharing space with Quakers.

                  Thank you!

                  "The fears of one class of men are not the measure of the rights of another." ~ George Bancroft (1800-1891)

                  by JBL55 on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 10:07:58 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

            •  Agree with the sentiment (0+ / 0-)

              Revelations 1-24 aren't so necessarily universalist, but I agree with you, of course. I also think that Cloud is one of the most important documents I ever encountered, and I wish I had the discipline or soul for it now.

              The only question I would have about the icon is that there is no agreement on who Juliana actually was and certainly no images of her have been identified. This, of course, is not a problem for an iconographer, because verisimilitude is not the point.

              Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

              by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 08:02:28 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Indeed (0+ / 0-)

                I did like the cat, though - it bears a striking resemblance to my late and much missed tiger cat Arrow, who was my darling from the day of his birth on New Year's Day in 1989 until I did the merciful thing and had my vet end his suffering in September 2005.  

  •  Awe (4+ / 0-)

    Reposted to Indigo Kalliope



    Some people make you want to change species

    by ulookarmless on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 01:27:54 PM PDT

    •  Wow. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Betty Pinson, ulookarmless

      I figured, "Well, the diary really didn't have much of a point, so I guess it's no wonder it didn't get much response." I turned off the electrical boxes and headed away.

      I turn things back on this morning to find out that people did like it. I'm amazed, aback, astonished, etc.

      I also realized that I may have been too publicly harsh about the people. I want to bless them with all my heart, but they must see the whole of the Gospel -- including humility and love that isn't set up for judging.

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 03:00:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I visited a more modern community (8+ / 0-)

    at Little Gidding in 1979. It was a evangelical Christian group who farmed together and worked for the communal good.

    I felt unsettled there, and dismayed by all the local Huntingdon associations with Cromwell.

    It was a cold gray October day, and I suspect that helped frame my response.

    Democrats promote the Common good. Republicans promote Corporate greed.

    by murasaki on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 02:19:01 PM PDT

    •  Evangelical != Evangelists :-( (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I'm glad you picked up on the distinction. I felt like I buried it in a clause at the end of a sentence.

      "Evangelical" groups have frequently been anti-clerical and anti-orthodox (today, they'll call themselves "non-denominational"), and the established churches (the national churches) have opposed them for those reasons. In the US, rather unusually, the evangelicals have wanted to start their own churches and so haven't been anti-clerical by nature, although they are anti-orthodox (meaning that they reject creed).

      Eliot could have chosen from many, many devout communities. Heck, since he had been reading Julian, he could have chosen her church. However, he skipped over the anchorites, skipped the ruined choirs, and went for Little Gidding because it was an orthodox community. (TSE was in a reactionary phase about monarchy that I can't dig, but in the poem it works as the grand mirror.)

      (Oh, and as Americans we tend to beg the question that the Continent faced in the 18th century about the Apostolic Age. We just had, where I am, a speaker telling the students that he had raised the dead by praying over the corpse.)

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 03:08:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I was a Chemistry major, thank my lucky stars (4+ / 0-)

    Education is an expensive luxury. Intellectual curiosity is free.

    by mojave mike on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 02:22:46 PM PDT

  •  i was looking forward to reading (4+ / 0-)

    your Donne link to but when I clicked on it the Hudibras came up again.

    I loved Donne when in college and should have gone into English literature instead of a more "worldly" subject - economics.........

  •  when I started working at (10+ / 0-)

    a brokerage firm many years ago, the salaried employees suddenly were required to time stamp themselves in and out.
    I refused to do it because I did my work as needed and stayed late to finish when it was necessary.

    eventually they gave up requiring the time stamp.

    the required chapel service is an unpleasant show of force...bring along some Donne and enjoy it :)
    good luck!

  •  force (9+ / 0-)

    All force begets an opposing force. That's the point of inviting rather than coercing. I think Jesus was kinda down with that.

    Mystical awareness unites, belief separates. Usually.

    It is a strange religion which has as a central tenet the mandate to force others to share their joy.

    •  To tell; to coerce; to love (0+ / 0-)

      The religion commands its believers to tell others that there is good news, that the kingdom of God has come, that all may be forgiven through Jesus Christ.

      Jesus said that this word should go out everywhere.
      Jesus also told His disciples to be missionaries.

      Does this mean that all believers are missionaries and evangelists -- each equally suited to preach? Does this mean every time and place is the same and that the news has never gone to any place?

      Jesus also said that the word may be like seed that falls on stony ground, or that falls among weeds, or that falls into the road, or that falls into good soil. Is the sower blamed for each seed that does not germinate? Do we blame the seed and say it was a bad fruit because the seed tossed on the interstate did not bloom?

      Jesus offered. He said that many would be called, but few would come.

      I have a sinking feeling when I see these things jumbled, because the consequences are grave for the religion, the believers, and the rest.

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 03:18:59 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is a stunning diary... (5+ / 0-)

    but I feel far too stupid to read it at the moment.  

    An entire fortnight of fighting "the business model mentality" at work has rendered me incapable of serious thought.

    Even if I couldn't process the concepts with the depth they deserved, the language flowed beautifully across my frontal lobe and has lulled me into a state of serene appreciation.

    But, as for substantive contributions: I got nuttin'

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 05:10:29 PM PDT

    •  Aww, shucks (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a gilas girl

      I was thinking, myself, that I had strung sonorous syllables without sense.  (Actually, there is an argument in it, but I didn't close the deal. I don't have the teeth for it. I don't want to condemn. I just want to hope and pray for the others and to oppose by being, as much as possible, the type of believer I think is best.) (I don't think I can fight fighting by striking a blow.)

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 03:21:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent (4+ / 0-)

    Thanks for renewing my admiration for T S Eliot.  

    Great stuff

    For last year's words belong to last year's language
         And next year's words await another voice."

    "When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?" Eleanor Roosevelt

    by Betty Pinson on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 06:37:27 PM PDT

    •  I could not help thinking of the OWS young (3+ / 0-)

      when I read that line in the diary--I haven't revisited T.S. Eliot in years: time to revisit the old man.

      Many chronotopes in his poetry are energized in today's environment, I'm sure!

      The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Clayton Act, Section 6.

      by Ignacio Magaloni on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 06:59:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Choruses from The Rock (3+ / 0-)

        Even though TSE could be a gigantic stick in the mud, he was no fool, and he knew about inequality.

        The Choruses from The Rock may not be his best work, but they have some of his nicer lines. The voices of the unemployed men:

        No man has hired us.
        Our life is unwelcome, our death
        Unmentioned in 'The Times.'"

        For the OWS, though, this is, I think, 1977 punk, 1991 grunge, 1968 all -- this is their time. It will not leave them, and the scorn tossed at them now will stay with them for a generation.

        Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

        by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 03:28:16 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Never apologize for "Latinate diction". (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    The Aeneid is the indispensable fountainhead of western literature.    

    Although Paul Simon is pretty good, too.

    •  Gud auld Anglo Saxon (0+ / 0-)

      Ich haef Angelisch enow to gewritten?

      I worry, sometimes, that Latin is not taught at all, but, in addition, I do not wish to send readers scurrying for a dictionary so often that the payoff is less than the pain.

      I suspect that Aeneid is the source of our forms, but Iliad is the source of the material of Western literature before it breaks into its national divisions.

      Every reductio ad absurdum will seem like a good idea to some fool or another.

      by The Geogre on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 09:09:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not an expert, just an enthusiastic amateur. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I started reading classics late in life, thanks largely to the inspiration of one very talented visiting professor whose speciality was drama rather than literature.   He tried to entice us with Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.  

        I struggled through those but when we moved on to Virgil, Ovid, and Tacitus, they seemed much more "contemporary" to me than the Greeks, maybe simply because I could recognize more vestiges of Roman systems and laws still extant.

        Professor Damon always insisted that anyone who read Virgil in translation was missing out on the best parts of it, but at 50, I wasn't prepared to start learning another language.

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