Sunday, 23 December 2012

May peace be born in you today

I have been returning quite a bit this year to T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (in fact those who know me might think I'm becoming a bit of a T.S. Eliot bore!). I first read these poems in 1996. I found them challenging to understand, but equally I have found that they repay re-reading, and each time reveal a little more wisdom, which Eliot had evidently accumulated from his readings of mystical and religious figures across the ages.

A recurring theme of Four Quartets is timelessness, or a contemplation of the "timeless present", compared to our continual pre-occupation with contemplating the past and the future - an activity which Eliot saw as pointless instead of living consciously in the present moment - something which we can only experience fleetingly, and in doing so access the true spiritual states. In the final section of the third of the four poems ("The Dry Salvages"), for instance he wrote:

Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint

I think he might also have written "mystic" for "saint".

What is this "point of intersection"? The text indicates that is it is something fleeting, which we experience occasionally: "The unattended moment, in an out of time", such as hearing music so deeply that it is not heard at all, but we are (one with) the music, while it lasts. I know that I have experienced this at concerts - the sense of being totally lost in the music - that it will never end and that I don't want it to end. One notable occasion was in a concert of the Elgar Piano Quintet - a piece I had not heard before. You can listen to it on YouTube, accompanied by beautiful photography here.

But a few lines later, Eliot indicates that these fleeting "timeless" experiences are only "hints and guesses" of something much greater. And he reveals to us his belief, as a Christian, that they are indications of the Incarnation:

... These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.

It seems to me there is a staggering profundity in this passage, which seems appropriate to consider at Chistmas time when traditionally we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  The "impossible union of spheres of existence" is that in the human person of Jesus Christ, God meets with us - and comes alongside us in our existence.  It is not a God who sits Above, detached from us, but one who experiences everything we experience - every fear and every moment of suffering.  It is "impossible" because it is a miracle - something that defies natural law.

Eliot is saying, it seems to me, that the birth of Christ, the Incarnation, the "Word made Flesh" of St. John Chapter 1:14, is the ultimate timeless moment - one that applies to all time, and conquers and reconciles the past and the future. Moreover, all the fleeting hints at timeless beauty, are in fact pointing us at Christ.

Further considering the meaning of Christmas, it seems to me that it would be wrong just to see it as an event in the past (albeit a timeless one) that led to the establishment of one of the world's major religions. I think the Incarnation can and should apply to us today. It represents the fact that God comes to meet us NOW, exactly where we are.

As I was thinking along these lines, this morning the final verse of the famous carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" came into my mind; its author evidently had much the same thought:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.

I would like to wish my readers and friends a truly happy and peaceful Christmas. I fully appreciate that not all of you are Christians, and perhaps Eliot's association of the timeless present as a hint of the Incarnation of God, will not have the same depth of meaning for you as it does for me. But I'll warrant that most of you will have experienced, albeit fleetingly, those moments of peace, and release from the perpetual worry about the past and the future; and you will know how wonderful that feels. I wish more of the same for you.

May peace be born in you today.

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