Today is a day many call “Mardi Gras”, a day of beads and feasts, of revelry, of song. But it is also—for me, it is mostly—Shrove Tuesday, the day for shriving, for making shrift in some personal sense. It is a day for emptying ourselves a little of our lives so that the next 40 days can fill us with something new. It is the day that the palms of Palm Sunday 2010 will be placed in the embers to be changed into 2011’s Ash Wednesday ashes, a reminder that so much of what we cherish is fleeting, that so much of what we long to hold on to cannot be held forever. Even if you come from another faith tradition or experience, I hope you can touch something familiar in what I’m saying—the idea that some parts of our life should be set aside for reflection, that part of who we are is who and what we lose, and that even our dark hours on the earth are a part of our time which, when we see them properly, have about them their own strange loveliness. So today’s poem is an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s incomparably rich poem The Four Quartets, specifically the fourth section, entitled “Little Gidding” — this passage takes part of Part III and Part IV. I don’t know if it will reach you, or intersect for you with what I’ve been talking about, but I offer it in the hopes that it will:
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one who died blind and quiet
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.