Tuesday, March 01, 2005

T.S. Elliot and the Holy Spirit (redux)

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 the 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 either fire or fire.

T.S. Elliot -- Little Gidding IV

I do not try to pass myself off as a poetry guy anymore. There was a time when much of my "free time", back when there was a whole lot more of it, was spent with pen and paper pouring myself and all my teenage angst onto a page blackened by my inky lifeblood. There was ne'er a feeling left untapped or an emotional episode left unrecorded. It is probably safe to say that those days were what lead to my eventual traverse on the stage and some wonderful years pursuing acting and singing. But this is not who I am today -- of course there are vestiges -- pieces of me that need outlet from time to time, be it by singing in the car or hearing a great opera or symphony, watching real actors (i.e. maybe 2% of the Hollywood crowd) really dig in and do great, gritty work. Things like that are few and far between, but when they happen the joy is unspeakable. Excellence is hard to come by these days, especially in poetry. I have made attempts to watch some of the publicized poetry that is out there now and, with a few certain exceptions, it is largely just politically liberal cry-babying that has no real soul. Maybe I'm jaded, my emotional spigot drawn in by the all to realness of reality and the height of the stakes at which the real is played. Life doesn't move moment by moment - life is epochal.
Now, don't get me wrong -- this is not some push toward some stoic, or Gnostic existentialism that says the now doesn't matter. It matters. But if you have a true philosophy of history then you know that moments are not for themselves, they are all moving towards something else, something that transcends each, a climax.
T.S. Elliot understands this, and phrases it in a way that nearly brought me to tears when it was first read to me. The backdrop is a series of classes on the Book of Acts (yes, that's in the bible...), more specifically on Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles of Jesus in Chapter two. We had spent weeks discussing what is happening in the passage, and looking back at the prophecy of John the Baptist in Luke, and looking at Jesus' own baptism. We had been going to great lengths discussing what it meant to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and Fire, and what the fire meant, the double entendre... and after our study on this section came to an end, my professor put this stanza of Elliot's poem on the overhead and read it to us, and in these two verse, crystallized all that we had spent weeks working to understand.
I don't know anything about T.S. Elliot. But after reading this stanza (I have yet to read the rest of the very long piece), I know that he knew scripture, he knew it well, and he had some personal knowledge of the Holy Spirit.
There is an urge in me to deconstruct these lines -- I want to take you through line by line and tell you each and every thing the author is alluding to, but I feel as though it would ruin it in my own mind, lessen it -- and I don't think I can do that.
But I will say this -- A couple of posts down I posted a verse from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew which read, "Our God is a consuming fire". Mr. Elliot understood and expresses this well, saying that we have no choice but to interact with that flame -- one way or another it will touch us, it must. It will be the touch of a refiner's flame, or the flame of judgment.
I encourage you to study it yourself. Look through the bible at all the references for fire and it's spiritual 'uses' - what it does (Joel 1 and 2, Malachi 3, 1 Peter 1 - only for starters), and then read the accounts of John the Baptist's ministry/prophecy and the Baptism of Jesus in Luke 3, and John 1 -- then read it's fulfillment in Acts chapters 1 and 2.

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