Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Burnt Norton

Once again I have decided to read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (This edition by Harcourt Inc, copyright 1943 by T. S. Eliot, renewed in 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot)
for reflection in Advent. I’m also taking as a companion a book I have not looked at since buying it soon after finishing seminary. It is Meditating on Four Quartets by John Booty (Published by Cowley, Copyright 1983 by John E. Booty). These are great, great poems for a season in which we are looking both backwards and forwards in time. Burnt Norton, named for a house and garden in the Cotswolds, begins “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past.” Reading this poem again, I am reminded of some of the pictures of fractals and the like in Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, where we see order coming out of chaos and a kind of united picture that makes sense of disorder. Booty says that “Four Quartets is concerned with the apprehension of the whole, beyond the apparent chaos of opposites and paradoxes.” (p.6) Clearly we are approaching an expression of God, sometimes described as ‘the Eternal Now’ but perhaps more in order to find our way with the flow of things rather than to impose our will upon that flow. I don’t know if Eliot was a pacifist, but it would make sense as these poems are written immediately before (Burnt Norton) and during (the others) the Second World War.

I find myself thinking of memory and how something from the past shapes the future, but also how there is a sense that time stand still as Eliot wanders through the garden and sees the empty pool, filled with his thoughts and memories. In the second section he leads us through paradox including saying “Only through time time is conquered.” And then the descent into the underground tunnels of London follows; a descent into darkness where even the question of meaning seems to be lost. So to the night of section IV: “the still point of the turning world. Before, finally, a kind of dawn as The Word seeks words and words seek The Word; words that “strain crack and sometimes break under the burden” of expressing the inexpressible, and so back to the Burnt Norton garden and affirmation of memory.

A professor who was very important to me was John W. Dixon who wrote The Physiology of Faith (Harper, 1979) in which he attempted to articulate a ‘theological theory of relativity’. In a way that is what Eliot is offering in the Quartets: a way to articulate how all things come together in love. I would want to say further that the possibilities of extraordinary diversity in creation, including in the world of ideas, are proper for God who brings universes into being, and that therefore anyone who would impose or coerce a single vision is belying the God who is Love.

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