Sermon: The Still Point (The Poetry of T.S. Eliot)
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Dec 8th, 2013. It reflects on the intersections of the B-52s, T.S. Eliot and Nelson Mandela.
A few weeks ago Brian and I went to see the B-52’s in concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Twenty-five years after their hey-day, they were still a raucous party on stage. We had a lot of fun. I want to focus in on though what happened before the show. It was an experiment in human psychology and self-awareness. The show was in a massive urban bowling alley, of all places, that had a standing area with a stage that easily fit 1000 people. We got there early for dinner – yes they had a fancy-ish restaurant in the mega-bowling alley. After dinner we bee-lined for the stage to get as close as possible since it wasn’t a designated seating area. We were lucky enough to be be in the second row of people from the stage. There was only one person between us and the band at any point of the show.
As time went on, we began talking with the people around us. It was all innocuous chit-chat – none of which could I recall today. After a bit, the fellow in front of us walked away. After about 10 minutes of the spot being empty, I moved forward to lean my back on the stage. I was getting stiff from the hour plus standing still. After a bit, that same fellow came back – walked up right next to me and began poking me in the side saying “that’s my spot.” “I was standing there.” (poke, poke, poke.) I told him I was just leaning back, and moved (the two feet) back to where Brian was standing.
Some time went by, and the fellow disappeared again for a while. Not wanting to get poked again, I left the space empty. After about 10 minutes, a woman came up and snuck into the empty spot. I began eating my proverbial popcorn and waited for the movie to unfold. In short order, the guy came back and did the same poke, poke, poke – “Move, this was my spot. I was standing here.” In a moment of luck, he found a second New Yorker that was willing to move away and just let it be without any drama.
Some time went by, and the fellow walked away – again. Like a comic routine, the same story unfolded for a third and final time. Three strangers in a row, he sidled up next to and poked them in the side saying, “this is my space.”
I’m pretty forgiving of many things, and I’m rather Zen about the big problems in life. But walking in front of me and stopping, blocking a subway or train door, and randomly poking my side are each ways to really work me up. I let it go, this time, but I wasn’t social with this guy for the rest of the night.
The next day we’re scheduled to meet a friend at Cinema Arts here in Huntington. We were going to see the opening of the LGBT film festival, and our friend was hoping to introduce us to area folks he knew. I turned to Brian and said, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the friends he introduces us to was that space-saver from the concert last night. No way. Well, as it turns out the next night we wind up meeting this same guy from the concert in Brooklyn, here in Huntington, and he’s friends with a friend of ours.
Priceless as this is, it’s not enough for my fiance. At the event he strikes up a conversation with this fellow about how concert-goers can sometimes be really difficult. The guy agrees whole-heartedly and begins to tell us stories of past concerts where some attendees would be really obnoxious about space – about where they were standing and who gets to stand there. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) For bonus points, and a last ditch effort to get me to smile, Brian asks the guy, “Do you think those obnoxious people even realize that they’re being rude or dramatic?” …And the guy says,… “No, I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” It’s at this point that I have to stop looking at Brian, or I’m going to burst out laughing at the banality of it all.
It all makes you wonder how often we’re guilty of the things we complain about. It’s an absurd story, but a good reminder that whoever we interact with today, we very well may interact with tomorrow. But maybe, most importantly, this concert-driven story tells me how we can carry around for a long time the really small stuff and make it really big. We can flip the story of being bumped two feet into a great wrong that requires us to poke and poke and poke – even if we don’t learn our lesson the first three times.
Moments like this, grievances like this, can overwhelm us. Who here has ever succumbed to vivid moments of annoyance over banal pettiness? Walk with me now through what I see as a primer for moving through the mundane and into the sublime. T.S. Eliot’s poetry does this for me. His body of work seems to address our insecurities and our foibles while pointing toward that which transcends it all. Eliot was actually raised a Unitarian, but left us as an adult to experiment with various religions and ended up with traditional Christianity in his elder years.
There’s a line from his poem “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reminds me of the banality we sometimes succumb to. “For I have known them all already, known them all: – Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall, Beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume.” The larger poem is a metaphor for a man unable to interact or flirt with a group of women. It touches upon feelings of inadequacy many of us feel in our lives. But this particular line has never left me. We know each minute that we can count. We’re creatures that in some ways live meaninglessly to a clock; or terrified through conversations we’re too scared to engage genuinely with; or base our lives around the same every day habits. I’ll be at Starbucks every morning, waiting in line with all the rest. Is my life about the next stir of the coffee spoon, or is it about something more? All of this leads to the poet’s question, “So how should I presume.” Presume to break free of the tick tock of whatever clocks we live by? To presume to talk with those we don’t feel worthy to speak with? Presume to not live our lives as though we were in a dying fall, or our music was less than another’s? (A dying fall is a musical reference to the gradual decrease in volume in a piece.) Measuring our lives in this way, through coffee spoons, is to deface what is timeless about us. It subverts what is eternal about the depth of life and gives us the greatest lie ‘that which is mundane is most significant.’
It doesn’t put us at ease, or find meaning in our days. In fact, making the mundane our focus in our lives, actually creates a sense of discord. It creates an emptiness and lack of peace that isn’t natural for humans – even if it is regretfully all to common. When we live for our habits, or live for that exact space in front of the stage at a B-52’s concert, or wallow in our presumptions – we miss out on life. Or as Eliot puts it in his later poem “The Hollow Men”, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.” Eliot has a way with the dramatic turn of phrase, but he often critiques us for not living fully; for not taking steps when it’s time to do so; or for not richly keeping the gifts we were given in this precious life. Succumbing to the trivial, we trade our living birthright with a hollow shell. There’s a way to live life with color and not solely shades of grey, but it requires a directness to it and an attentiveness. The trap of emptiness or meaninglessness only closes when we live our lives in tepid, unreflected ways.
An excerpt here from his poem, The Dry Salvages (rhyming with assuages), (the part we heard earlier as one of our readings)
“To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual past times and drugs, and features of the press: and always will be, some of them especially, when there is distress of nations or perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road. 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 – no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. 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.”
For me, this T.S. Eliot’s most spiritual poem. If we live hollow lives due to our quiet muttering or our dry cellars – as he puts it – this poem is a response to that malaise. The spiritual practice is in the attended moment. It’s finding the moments of beauty and peace, and delicately placing them upon the altars of our consciousness, and simply bearing witness. Whether they be shafts of sunlight, or winter lightning, or times of celebrated joy or relief, it is in these moments that we apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time. It’s in these actions that we put down our coffee spoons, and stir our lives to another thrum. Nothing neat. Nothing measurable. Intimations… Attention… Hints directing to something more than the measure of minutes and seconds…. It’s in these moments that we incarnate – fully human – fully holy.
These moments though, aren’t always based in the peace of nature. Sometimes they shine through in our messy human interactions – filling our hearts, reminding us that we are part of a greater story that began before us, and will continue on when our part is finished… On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at home after a three month battle with a lung infection. He lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages.
In my life, one of my moments between the moments involved President Mandela. It was a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of Mr. Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward, that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating our moment between the moments. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His life was as far from T.S. Eliot’s pastiche of the Hollow Men that I can imagine. No quiet whisperings, no empty mutterings, but a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
I mention Mr. Mandela today, because he lived a life that was worthy of remembering. I also feel that lives such as his, are the direction this morning’s poet was pointing toward. The poems I’ve read from by T.S. Eliot today spanned in time from World War 1, through World War 2. They were not ignorant of the great tragedies, challenges and hopes of their day. And they ultimately sketch out the impressions of an ethic for an era that continues to hold vibrancy today. And Eliot makes those sketches rooted in a theological mindset.
I’ll close with the other poem we read earlier from – the excerpt from Burnt Norton: “ 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, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance, I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”
This is the theology that grounds the poetry that implies the ethic. We find sustenance in the moments between the moments. Not the practice, not the doing, not the striving, but the being present to the world around us. When time unfolds between our breathes and life inhales our patience. Those timeless glimpses can nurture and sustain us. The path of the infinite pressed down upon us and we know we are more than we are not. It validates all the rest; all the effort, all the striving, all the doing. Knowing that we are not merely the sum of our actions – although our actions do matter – but rather we are the witnesses to the eternal scope of life, albeit for but a moment. A moment may be long enough to sustain us.
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