For many of us, I suppose there are a handful works of literature that captivate us so utterly that our lives are forever marked by them. My first poetic love was Lord Alfred Tennyson who was the first to teach me even as a high school student to hope that no soul would be forever destroyed (this set me off on a twenty year odyssey to finally embrace Christian Universalism). As my love for great poetry grew, TS Eliot was later added to that literary anthology in my soul that gave fullness and shape to the way I view the world. Eliot’s masterpiece Four Quartets is the kind of work someone could get lost in for years and still find meaning lurking in its many corners.I would recommend Four Quartets to anyone who has a serious interest in poetry or good literature, but it is much like scaling Mt. Everest, you must be prepared for a challenge, go with a guide (there are several readers guides available on the internet as well as some fantastic youtube lectures to be found), and be ready to have your breath taken away.
I might return to other notable aspects in Four Quartets at a later date, but in this post I want to explore the explicit universalism in the last of the Quartets, Little Gidding and its imagery of fiery transfiguration.
Eliot draws off of Julian of Norwich, the 15th Century British mystic, notable for her encounters with Christ in a state of illness which were then recorded in her Shewings, or as published in the modern world, Revelations of Divine Love. In these astonishing revelations that Julian received from Jesus while deathly ill, she was contemplating the ghastly nature of sin that leads to suffering and separation from God. In the Short Text 13 (there is also a Long Text of the Shewings), Christ answers Julian’s painful questions about sin by saying “Sin is befitting” (or in the more archaic and possibly lovely, “Sin is behovely”). When one follows the contours of the Shewings, it is abundantly clear that neither Julian, not Christ are asserting that sin is good. No, to Julian sin is the deprivation of all that is good, and we would know nothing of its existence (since it is merely a privation of existence) were it not for the suffering it causes. Yet, sin brings us to an end of ourselves and the suffering we endure in its shadow cause us to reach out to a merciful God. Christ then goes on to reveal that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” In this statement, and as Julian elaborates later in these revelations, Christ will bring about the miracle of restoring all to himself. Now, there is some debate among scholars about the extent of Julian’s universalism – but, it seems indisputable to me that the revelations Julian received from Christ cultivated a sturdy hope in her that all would be saved.
Eliot takes up the Shewings of Dame Julian in Little Gidding III:
…Thus love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well…
Whatever we have inherited from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
In Little Gidding III, Eliot weaves in Julian’s concept of the behovliness, or fittingness of sin in this broken world in a picture of the suffering and strife that arises between one people and another over their love of country. However ghastly human violence can be, beneath the warped motives that lead men to war, there is something lovely and redeemable that remains long after whatever brought men to war ceases to be relevant. Those “united in the strife which divided them” become “A symbol perfected in death.” War might be a brutal necessity that can only be described as sinful, however within the same ugliness are things like courage, self-sacrifice, and love of home – all of which are beautiful. For Julian, as for Eliot this sinful existence is fitting, not because sin is good, but because all the good which sin defaces will be “become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” It is the very foulness of sin that leads us to reach out for something of enduring goodness.
For Eliot, the only path to this is through the ordeal of fire. In Little Gidding IV:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised this torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire,
Consumed by fire or fire.
For Eliot, the fire is inescapable. The fire is Love-born, reminiscing of the Spirit descending upon Christ who would baptize with fire which will touch us all. Yes, the fire will destroy, purging all of the taints of sin. But, the very same fire will transfigure. In life, Eliot’s constant refrain is to embrace these purgatorial fires that God gives to us to refine us, purifying our character and our motives. Yet, the beautifully painful picture of fire gives way to a transfigured self in a transfigured creation. Just as the disciples catch a glimpse of Christ in all his glory on the mount of transfiguration, Eliot gives us a glimpse of this transfigured state in the image of the fire and the rose. I will not detail how important the image of the rose is throughout Four Quartets is, that is an essay in itself which would span the influences of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tennyson’s Maud. However, suffice to say that from the beginning of the poem the rose is a contested beauty tainted by dust and cold wind and briars, however at the end it realizes its final, and decidedly beatific vision in Little Gidding V:
…Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
As a life-long reader of theology and someone who has imbibed from the very best and the very worst theology across several of the most prominent traditions in the church, I have grown increasingly incredulous about the recalcitrant obtuseness of many theologians and clergymen, even great ones (with notable exceptions) about the fate of humanity. It would seem to me that poets, perhaps due to the empathy with which they hone their skills, come across as, well, more humane as well as more Christian when it comes to the question of judgement. I would argue that Eliot’s account of purgation is terrifying, yet not without hope; whereas Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is almost cartoonish in its vicious ugliness. Eliot knows that the fire must come, and most Universalists I respect agree, but there is hope, not beyond the flames, but in them.
I think we all have the innate longing to discover and be who we truly are. But, the world as it is will not allow this; nor, sadly will we, given our weaknesses and internal contradictions. We get glimpses of our true selves, but these are only glimmers cast under the shadow of our own mortality and inability to “fix” our terminal flaws. But there is tremendous hope for us all when the fire of purgation gives way to transfiguration, where the fire and the rose are one and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
**Note: Fr. Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy has a great series of reflections on Four Quartets called Meditating Four Quartets that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to take the time to read through Eliot’s brilliant and challenging masterpiece.