“And let my cry come unto Thee”: On Ash Wednesday

Turning. Conversion. Prayer. Repentance. Redemption. The Word. Silence. Peace. Divine Love.

(Image: CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

Salutem in Domino (Health and salvation in the Lord)!

That traditional Latin greeting encapsulates our hope and prayer every day of our lives, but one that we raise with particular intensity for the next forty days. The Latin Church begins her Lenten journey with the very evocative, dramatic rite of the imposition of ashes, hence, Ash Wednesday. Harking back to our primordial origins, the priest reminds each person, Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return). Ashes have quite a pedigree in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition; the word appears at least 57 times in both Testaments. Abraham acknowledges his own nothingness in the sight of God by referring to himself as nothing more than “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). Women as diverse as Tamar, Judith and Esther speak of ashes in connection with a penitential spirit. We find references to “dust and ashes” or “sackcloth and ashes” in the Books of Job, Sirach, Jonah and Daniel. Our Lord castigates the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida for their obstinacy by declaring that the sinners of Tyre and Sidon would have put on “sackcloth and ashes” if they had witnessed the wonders He was working (Mt 11:21; Lk 10:13).

I would like to lead you through a reflection on one of the truly great masterpieces of English literature – “Ash-Wednesday,” by T. S. Eliot.

Eliot was born in St. Louis into a Unitarian-Universalist family but moved to England and there abandoned the liberalism of the Unitarians and was baptized as an Anglican, becoming a devotee of the “High Church” movement or that very odd but intriguing group of “Anglo-Catholics.” Given his very Catholic propensities, some people were surprised that he stopped short of entering the Catholic Church. When asked that very question, Jacques Maritain (who had befriended Eliot), quipped that he suspected that Eliot seemed to have only enough spiritual energy for one conversion (not unlike C.S. Lewis)! Other literati of England were not so kind in their estimation, even of Eliot’s merely becoming an Anglican, let alone if he had swum the Tiber. Seething with contempt, the novelist Virginia Woolf, an atheist and later a suicide, wrote:

I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

At any rate, Eliot survived the opprobrium and penned many gems with an explicitly religious theme. Here I am thinking of works like “The Journey of the Magi” or “Four Quartets.” “Ash-Wednesday” is a veritable magnum opus, more than 200 lines long and composed by Eliot ninety-one years ago, just three years after his reception into the Anglican Communion. Eliot takes a page out of Dante’s playbook in being guided by a lovely “Lady,”as was Dante in his Commedia Divina by Beatrice; the earnestness of his search for spiritual life and fulfillment has echoes of St. John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul; having recourse to poignant texts of the Sacred Liturgy is reminiscent of Cardinal Newman’s technique in The Dream of Geronius.

Now relax and rest assured that I shall not attempt to go through all 200+ lines, but I do want to highlight some of the more significant ones that might serve as guideposts for your Lenten pilgrimage. I should note at the outset a very interesting absence in “Ash-Wednesday” – Eliot never mentions ashes!

The opening line, about whose meaning many literary critics debate, is very straightforward and easily comprehensible – if one has a biblical frame of mind: Because I do not hope to turn again.1 “To turn” is the English equivalent of the Hebrew word, shuv, which signifies changing course or direction. New Testament Greek will use the word metanoia, for that change of mind or heart that enables one to change course. Our narrator (the alter ego of the poet himself) is saying that, having gotten on the right path, he hopes never to get off it. For those of us who have gotten off the right path from time to time, we need to ask for the grace “to turn again” – the whole purpose of Lent This theme is underscored in the First Reading for the Mass on Ash Wednesday (in both “forms” of the Mass), as we hear from the prophet Joel:

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.

However, this is not just a project for Lent; it is equally the task of a whole lifetime, hence, one of the concluding versicles of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar in the Extraordinary Form: Deus, tu conversus vivificabis nos (Having “turned,” O God, You will revive us), to which comes the response: Et plebs tua laetabitur in te (And Your people shall rejoice in You). Our “turning” enables God to “turn” toward us, causing us to rejoice in His mercy.

Two Marian invocations appear: Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. . . And after this our exile – coming from the Ave Maria and Salve Regina. Mary, of course, is “the Lady” who guides Eliot along the road of repentance. His recourse to the Blessed Virgin should not surprise us because he was of the company of the Anglo-Catholics. One of the titles accorded Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto is that of Refugium Peccatorum (Refuge of Sinners), a title going back at least to Germanus of Constantinople in the eighth century. The sinless Mother of God is our model of holiness and virtue, as well as our loving and powerful intercessor before her Son. As the Fathers of Vatican II remind us in Lumen Gentium:

Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and trials, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. (n. 62)

Invite her to be your companion during this holy season of repentance.

With his lovely “Lady,” the poet is now able to perceive with the Prophet Ezekiel the “dry bones” within himself and then within others.

Ezekiel is confronted with a vision of a field of dry, dead bones and commanded to prophesy over them, so as to bring them back to life. Isn’t that the situation in which we find ourselves in the secularized West? Unfortunately, like the Chosen People of old, most of our contemporaries don’t realize that they are dead and that the culture is moribund. It is our task to demonstrate to them just how lifeless the whole culture is. Were it otherwise, how would one explain the vast array of children with learning disabilities of every kind; the couches of psychiatrists constantly filled; the suicide rate (especially among the young) the highest in our history? Too often, we Catholics have been intimidated into silence in the face of what is in reality an “anti-culture,” lest we appear “out of it” or “uncool.”

Dear friends, it is our holy vocation, our noble vocation, our Christian vocation – to re-assume the prophetic mantle first bestowed on us in Holy Baptism to proclaim, loud and clear, with our lips but especially with our lives that in following Christ and His Church, we lose nothing that is “free, beautiful and great,” as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us so powerfully in the homily inaugurating his Petrine ministry. As a matter of fact, he said, not only do we not lose anything, we gain much more besides. However, we must firstly believe that ourselves before attempting to convince others; only then will our witness be credible.

Now the poet takes us to the words of the Sacred Liturgy; Lord, I am not worthy; Lord, I am not worthy. Immediately, though, like the liturgical text in its echo of the Roman centurion, he adds, but speak the word only. We are not worthy of our noble baptismal call; we are not worthy of Christ’s mercy. In truth, as Our Lord would have us understand from one of His parables, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10). Even with the best of intentions, however, we still fail. As one of the sages of Ancient Israel teaches us, even “a righteous man falls seven times,” but then he goes on to say that he “rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). How does he “rise again”? Eliot urges us:

Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

What does it mean to “redeem the time”? In our present context, I would suggest that it means to use well and wisely the Season now upon us, what St. Paul calls this “acceptable time,” this “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).

What is this “unheard, unspoken” word? Better, who? Here we discover that we are being treated to a reprise of the lofty, soaring, exhilarating vision of the Prologue to the Gospel of John:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

And then, we hear the divine lament with which Holy Church pricks our consciences in the Reproaches of Good Friday: O my people, what have I done unto thee.

When we hear about this “whirling” world, does it not bring to mind that emblematic motto of the Carthusians: Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis (The Cross stands firm while the world whirls)? That world – and that includes you and me – is unresponsive to the movements of God toward us. We cannot hear His “Word.” Why is that the case?

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

We are distracted by the noise around us, the noise with all its allurements, the noise that blocks out the “voice” of the One who would save us with only a glance of His beautiful face, as he did for the denying Peter, leading him to weep tears of sorrow and repentance (see Lk 22:60-62). That saving encounter is etched on the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica and needs to be etched on our minds and hearts.

But let’s return to the underlying difficulty identified by Eliot: noise, the lack of silence. We are bombarded, assaulted by noise of every kind. And all too often, we make noise for ourselves. Just think about how many people can’t take a half-hour jog without being connected to the umbilical cord of their earphones! Recall the lesson learned by Elijah as God instructed him:

“Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

One of the transcendentalist poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would urge us: “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whisper of God.” If you are looking for some bracing Lenten reading, I can do no better than to recommend the book-long hymn to silence by the indomitable Cardinal Robert Sarah: The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Don’t miss the sub-title; noise is a potent dictator because it distracts and consumes. And so, the Cardinal writes: “Silence is more important than any other human work, for it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and others so as to place ourselves humbly and generously at their service.” Notice how he leads us to God and then on to service.

Our poet now would have us pray for “Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee.” Whom does he have in mind? I would venture that he is referring to those who walk in the darkness of the world’s agenda, having first chosen Christ but end up opposing Him by taking on the ways of the world. We all do that from time to time; that’s what sin is all about. However, I believe that Eliot wants us to see here those who have made a career out of doing this, all the while professing piety: clutching rosaries but condemning innocent babies in their mothers’ wombs to an agonizing death. Such people truly need our prayers for their conversion, for them to “turn.”

Praying for other sinners necessarily brings one back to his own sins; and so, the poet presents himself before the tribunal of mercy in the Sacrament of Penance, with that very familiar and heartfelt opening, “Bless me, Father.” His contrition is surely most sincere because he begs for the grace “not wish to wish these things.” In other words, he doesn’t even want to entertain the possibility of sinning in any way ever again. What a blessing that would be! And isn’t that what all our Lenten penance is designed to bring about – distancing ourselves from the near occasions of sin by disciplining our wills and strengthening our resolve? As though that were not enough indication of a firm purpose of amendment, he goes a step further: “Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” We are so good at believing our own public relations verbiage. How often do we hear a compulsive liar or cheat end his self-defense with, “But I’m really a good person”? Instead, we need to adopt the language and posture of the repentant publican who, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk 18:13). Further, while we might gladly mock ourselves with falsehood, Sacred Scripture admonishes us: “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7).

The poet is now nearing the end of his long road to repentance and realizes something very profound: “Our peace in His will.” That comes directly from Dante who, centuries earlier, declared: “In His will is our peace.” That means two things. First, that our good and loving God intensely desires our peace. Second, that we experience peace most definitively when we conform our wills to God’s holy will. And here we have no better example than to make our own the words of “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). St. Bernardine of Siena calls those words “a flame of transforming love.” And rightly so, for as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, “love calls forth love.” When all is said and done, isn’t Lent really the Church’s invitation for each of us to have a “second honeymoon” with the Lord, so as to respond to the love of the Father, who made the first overtures of love toward us in Baptism?

Awareness of the gift of divine love impels the poet to pray: “Suffer me not to be separated,” words put on the lips of the priest as he prepares for his reception of Holy Communion: “a te numquam separari permittas” (never let me be parted from You). If our “second honeymoon” is successful, thanks to divine grace and our cooperation, that prayer will be fulfilled, aptly summarized in the final plea of our hymn of repentance: “And let my cry come unto Thee.” Our faith informs us that such a prayer always finds a happy home within the Heart of God.

Well, we have come to the end of feasting on the wisdom, piety and elegance of T. S. Eliot – a reflection on Ash Wednesday, with no reference to ashes, but filled with heavenly food for thought. At least, I have always found it so and hope you have, too.

Let me leave you with what I believe to be one of the finest summaries of the goals of the holy season on which we are embarking today; it comes from the pen of the late-seventeenth-century hymnographer Thomas Ken, one of the so-called “Caroline Divines,” who were highly influential on Cardinal Newman and the Oxford Movement a century later. Listen carefully and take to heart his admonitions:

I do not exhort you to follow them [the ancients] any further than either our climate or our constitutions will bear; but we may easily follow Daniel, in abstaining from wine, and from the more pleasurable meats, and such an abstinence as this, with such a mourning for our own sins, and the sins of others, and the proper exercise of a primitive spirit during all the weeks of Lent. For what is Lent, in its original institution, but a spiritual conflict, to subdue the flesh to the Spirit, to beat down our bodies and to bring them into subjection? What is it, but a penitential martyrdom for so many weeks together which we suffer for our own and others’ sins! A devout soul, that is able duly to observe it, fastens himself to the Cross on Ash Wednesday, and hangs crucified by contrition all the Lent long; that having felt in his closet the burthen and the anguish, the nails and the thorns, and tasted the full of his own sins, he may by his own crucifixion be better disposed to be crucified with Christ on Good Friday, and most tenderly sympathize with all the dolours, and pressures, and anguish, and torments, and desertion, infinite, unknown, and unspeakable, which God incarnate endured, when He bled upon the Cross for the sins of the world; that being purified by repentance, and made conformable to Christ crucified, he may offer up a pure oblation at Easter, and feel the power, and the joys, and the triumph of his Saviour’s resurrection.”2

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

(Note: This homily was preached on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.)

ENDNOTES:

1This is actually an English rendering of the first line of a short ballad, by the Italian troubadour, and Dante’s best friend, Guido Cavalcanti – another indication of Eliot’s reliance on Dante. It is also an echo of the first lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX.

2From his “Sermon on Daniel.”


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 192 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

1 Comment

  1. “It is our task to demonstrate to them just how lifeless the whole culture is”

    Dare we hope that such a demonstration will come from the Pope and the bishops?

    Oh pardon me, I forgot that climate change and human fraternity is much more important.

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