Thursday, March 15, 2012
To Turn Again
The new issue of Let's Talk: Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod is online. The topic is "Turning Around," and my column is on T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, and the unexpected ways in which the church is prolonged into the future:
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I took a class entirely on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. I don't remember now what made me so eager, with so many subjects to cover and so many classes available, to spend ten weeks on one poet. But I do remember being very eager. It was winter quarter, and we came to Ash Wednesday--Eliot's poetic announcement of his conversation to Anglo-Catholic Christianity--shortly before its liturgical namesake. The professor said that, while he didn't want to encourage us to play the religious voyeur--I recall that phrase quite precisely--we could see this ritual event in action in the coming week if we wished. I'd been lingering around the edge of the church long enough to feel justified in going to Rockefeller Chapel to see and hear what the poem was referencing. I left with ashes on my forehead and the distinct thought, "Well, I guess this means I'm a Christian."
Looking again at Eliot's poem, I am struck--in a way I wasn't back in the days of my own journey to the church--that he seemed to experience so little joy in his conversion. "Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn," the poem opens, echoing a line from 13th century Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti. I've never read a biography of Eliot and my reading in the scholarship on his work is very sparse--only at the University of Chicago would a professor assign 60 pages of modernist poetry for a quarter and literally no secondary sources. But it has the sound of a man falling in love with the faith, thought, and worship of Christian Europe just as he sees that civilization losing its power.
posted by Benjamin Dueholm |