Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday." Waugh & T.S.Eliot

 "Thank God Christmas is over. I prefer Ash Wednesday."
So wrote the fevered Catholic convert, Evelyn Waugh, commenting on his children’s impertinence. A glib remark from a man who lived a privileged life.

The photo here is from my visit to Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. The stark cross is on the spot where 15 participants of the 1916 Easter Uprising were shot dead by firing squad, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation.

The exasperation of a pampered writer or a reminder of the tragic fate of a band of revolutionaries,  one can appreciate the austerity of Ash Wednesday, a time to think about the endgame, when our vessels of bodies will be returned to the earth.

The words that hang over the day are from the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer: while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the priest shall say,

"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Based on: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” — Gen 3:19

And Then There's T.S.Eliot
I get called to jury duty every three to four years like clockwork. One time I was even sequestered on a jury. That’s a tale for another time.

A few years ago I was in a different room than my usual at 110 Centre street. This room had a white marker board behind the officers’ desk. On it were written quotes meant to be funny to those hanging out in the jury pool:

“They also serve who only stand and wait”

I recognized that quote. It's Churchill by way of Milton “When I consider how my light is spent”


“Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

Hmm. I didn’t recognize that quote. It really bothered me.

It happened to be Ash Wednesday. At the lunch break I made my way over to St. Andrew’s, the Catholic church near 1 Police Plaza.

Where, to my complete amazement, in the middle of the sermon, I hear the priest say “Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still”

And then go on to explicate some of the T.S.Eliot poem it is from, "Ash Wednesday."


That the homily would reference this quote on the day I saw it? And that somehow I had missed studying that poem in a fairly rigorous English lit education.

Sometimes the universe gives you what you need. I wanted to know where that line was from, and through no effort of my own, the universe tossed me the reference. I think of this every year on Ash Wednesday, that are lives are connected in many wonderful and amazing ways.

An excerpt from the last section of Eliot’s very ample poem meditation on Ash Wednesday, which he wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn


Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.