Today is Ash Wednesday, and once again my thoughts turn to T.S. Eliot. Later, I will listen, as I used to do after all my confessions, to the Pope of Russell Square intone “Ash Wednesday” (1930) in a vatic voice. Like Eliot, I am a convert. And for all converts, Ash Wednesday offers a reminder of the life we have left behind. Converts feel, perhaps more powerfully than those raised in the faith, the strange liminal state of the Christian life. We are dead to sin, but not yet fully alive. The ashes imposed on our foreheads are merely the outward sign of an ever-fragile conversion. Ash Wednesday is the reminder of our weakness, of our constant need for mercy, of the vast landscapes of heaven and hell that open for us beyond the febrile veil of our brief hours on earth. On Ash Wednesday, we remember our death. Reversing all natural order, the penitential season begins with death and ends with the triumph of life. Let it never be said that the liturgical calendar lacks paradox. “Although I do not hope to turn again,” the liturgy leads me to do so.
As much as I love Eliot’s work, I don’t think his fine poem is the only one worth reading today. I might also consider the work of another great Anglican writer, George Herbert.
In The Temple (1633), Herbert devotes one of his poems to Ash Wednesday. He writes, in a detached style that marks him as perhaps the preeminent pastor-poet of Anglicanism:
Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.
Herbert, like Eliot so many centuries later, is a writer of deeply ecclesial sensibilities. His poetic is shaped by the language of the Prayer Book and the Bible, at once homely and hieratic. Yet his moral vision clearly grows from his practical experience as a vicar. One could be forgiven for mistaking the poem for a sermon in verse.
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,
And Power it self disable.
Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,
Revenging the delight.
Throughout, he tempers his characteristic calls for conversion with a profound humility before the perfection of Christ. To conclude:
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.