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.
- "Four Quartets, "East Coker" IV
It may have been T.S. Eliot’s memorable meditations on midwinter spring, or April as the cruelest month that seemed to stir me into picking up his “Four Quartets” this time each year. But it was almost certainly the above-cited portion of the poem which inspired me to turn this accidental habit into a Holy Week practice. with its four distinct movements, the “Quartets” seem ready-made for the occasion. The reader can begin on Maundy Thursday with “Burnt Norton”, come to Eliot’s sideways–but no-less visceral–portrayal of the work of the incarnate Christ in “East Coker” on Good Friday, and find himself unsettled at the return of the old gods in the darkness of Holy Saturday in “The Dry Salvages”, before arriving at “Little Gidding” and the certain hope of the beatific vision on Easter Sunday.
Is such a characterization strained? A bit, admittedly. The fourfold division makes for convenient Holy Week reading at least, but it’s the “still point at the center of the turning world” of this poem that really makes it fitting. In the fourth section of “East Coker,” Eliot arrests our souls by making strange our familiarity with the atonement. In “this twittering world,” where we are so often “distracted from distraction by distraction,” we could do worse than to meditate for a few days on the wondrous mystery that, as Eliot will put it, unites the fire and the rose.
Eliot first introduces the idea of the “still point” in “Burnt Norton,” as his hypnotic poetry woos the reader into his way of seeing things.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity...
Beautiful, but it doesn’t mean anything yet. Readers shaped by classical thought may feel the reverberations of the Unmoved Mover–a metaphysically central figure whose perfection moves all of reality. But Eliot is unwilling to land anywhere explicit, content to condition our souls with metaphor and sense imagery. After all, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
In fact, by the time we get to Eliot’s own “still point”–the fourth part of the second poem–we are nearly halfway through the “Four Quartets” with no explicit mention of its animating cause and subject: the Triune God. But, as Eliot scholar Thomas Howard is quick to remind us, that would be outside the job description of a modern poet, who must “contrive to speak of this theme in words that will quietly steal a march” on the reader. Eliot weaves a world of sense and metaphor so that by the time the reader arrives at “The wounded surgeon plies the steel,” he grasps the sense with an intuition stronger than scientific certainty. By casting Christ as the “bleeding hands” that bring the “sharp compassion of the healer’s art,” without naming him, Eliot brings us to recognize our Savior of our own accord. This is the “hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood.”
Eliot finally makes this explicit in the third of his Quartets as he unfolds our experience of the “moments in and out of time.” Whether you are the sort to get lost in nature or to feel an other-worldly unity with a work of art, these are only “hints and guesses and hints followed by guesses,”all of which point to one end: incarnation.
This is where Eliot proves himself as great a theologian as a poet. Here, salvation has a wider scope than the modernized and mechanized Christian is often so content to believe. Incarnation is not just the bare fact of the Word of God made flesh, but the whole story of salvation. Likewise, salvation is not only the bare fact of the resurrection, but God drawing near to man so that He might make us one with Him. The end of the incarnation is not merely dealing with sin, but bringing mankind to the beatific vision. The consummation at the end of time when:
All shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
God’s extraordinary condescension has become so much a part of our experience that we have cast it down and made it ordinary. It is the poet’s job to meet us at the edge of the dark wood and dare us to “risk enchantment” again. “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling” to lead us, as modern day mystics, “into the darkness of God.”
Our own experience and our running understanding of the world are too “caught up in the currents of action” to gain much knowledge. But if we determine to meditate on the “still point of the turning world,” we will discover it to be the Love that moves the spheres, a “Love that is itself unmoving, only the cause and end of all movement.”
Brittany Petruzzi is a freelance writer and YouTube musician at Canticlear.