Reflection on Part V
by Dr. Fred Bode
In Ash Wednesday Eliot reminds us that Lent is a season of self-examination, repentance, and renewal, but by the time we reach part V of the poem we've already learned that turning from sin is not easy—at the turning of the stair the devil follows close behind. Eliot introduces this section ominously where the initial conditional clause completes the last sentence of Part IV, ". . . And after this our exile [i]f the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent . . . ." Eliot is an artful punner and player with paradox which can only be appreciated by reading these lines, rather than hearing them: "If the lost word is lost . . ./If the unheard, unspoken/Word is unspoken, unheard;/Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,/The Word without a word, the Word within/ the world . . . ." What is he getting at? Eliot provides a clue by using both upper case and lower case W. To help solve the puzzle we may turn to the first line of St. John's Gospel which reveals a fundamental article of our faith: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God," the Word, the Logos, the Christ, the Word within the world: "Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled . . . ." Bishop Lancelot Andrewes referred to the new born Christ as Verbum infans—the infant Word—"the Word and not able to speak a word."
The Word reaches us through the word—if we do not heed the word, we do not hear the Word—the word reveals the Word, the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. We are shown but do not see; we are spoken to but do not hear. The world is God's creation, filled with beauty and worthy of enjoyment, but also a place of distraction, temptation, and anguish—unless we allow God to speak to us. "Where shall the word be found . . . ?/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 . . . ./No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice . . . ."
Later in Part V Eliot introduces another paradox with the line, "The desert in the garden the garden in the desert . . . ." The desert in the poem is the absence of sustenance and a spiritual void; the garden is at once the place of lost innocence but also suggestive of God's bounty and the abundance of God's grace. Our spiritual desert lies surrounded by God's garden, which in turn exists within a fallen world—a desert within a garden within a desert.
In the liturgical reproaches of Good Friday God reminds us of what we have done and of what we have failed to do, and, even more, our stubborn unwillingness to fully know Him, although He has revealed that knowledge to us through his Word, his son Jesus Christ. In the last two lines of Part III, the poet cries out, "Lord, I am not worthy/but speak the word only." It is for us to reflect and, above all, to listen. That is what Lent is all about, listening, seeing. As the last lines of the poem remind us, "Our peace is 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."