06 April 2007

Lenten disciplines

It's Good Friday, which means it's the best day for the exercise of my favorite Lenten habit: reading TS Eliot's Four Quartets. Eliot wrote these four five-movement poems late in life, arguably adapting sonata form to written language, and I esteem them as some of the best poems ever. (Maybe one day I'll post a fives list of poems.)

Two of the quartets, "Burnt Norton" (Quartet No. 1, if you will, as Eliot placed it first in the collection) and "Little Gidding" (No. 4), are highly anthologized, but my favorite is "East Coker" (No. 2), not least because it ends with the line "In my end is my beginning," which one day maybe Micah will let me have as a tattoo.

But we're getting off the subject. Every year during Lent, I read the quartets because they explore the humility of this age and the glory of the renewed age to come. And every year, I find that I love the poems even more than the year before, especially my favorite section, that which celebrates Good Friday ("East Coker," fourth movement):

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
In these metered feet and careful rhymes, we see the beauty of the Messiah: he is the wounded surgeon, the bloody-handed healer, the ultimate keeper of the hospital which that ruined millionaire endowed with sin and death, our only food and drink. He makes us whole on this ironic Friday, such a day of death and terror, a remembrance of the most awful bad. Let the dying nurse tell us the story again so that we might again call it good.


rachel said...

i don't think i have ever read those...thank you for sharing...what a beautiful reminder of the gross sacrifice it took to redeem such a sinner as i ...what a great and mighty God we serve, what a caring and merciful Savior, blessed be the name of the Lord today and ever more

My Breathments Off said...

The day you get a tattoo is the day I get a tattoo, and I can tell you right now, that day is never.

Brent said...

Good post, on this wonderous scandalous night...

Arthur Jackson said...


Jen Strange said...

Sic, let's go! It would be scandalous . . . though not in the beautifully ironic way that Brent has gloriously noted that night was.