In 1928, TS Eliot is contemplating becoming a Christian. He is apprehensive, and records his thoughts in the poem “Ash Wednesday,” asking that God’s judgment not rest too heavily upon him. He feels that he is not worthy of God’s love, and that the world is too unsettled, too noisy for a person to hear God. He refers to Our Lord as St. John does, the Word, and writes, “Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled/About the centre of the silent Word.”
The Word speaks in the silence of our hearts, when we are still and quiet. For nine months he prepares in Mary’s womb, and in the whispered prayers of the Mass as the priest embraces the altar and we prepare for his arrival at the words of consecration, he sends before him a stillness. This quietude is the embrace of birth and new life, but also the silence of the grave, the rock that seals Our Lord’s tomb while the moonlight cuts shadows through across the door of the holy sepulcher. We are dust and unto dust we shall return. As Eliot puts it, this is the “desert in a garden,” a, “dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.” Our Lord is risen, but he also carries with him always the marks of crucifixion.
These are the types of meditations on death and dying that terrify a noisy world that is in denial of death. Because we are afraid, we look away. We pretend that if life can be a jumble of busyness and movement, then we can ignore the fact that everything comes to an end, that our existence is not our own, and that God eventually calls each one of his children home.
Lent is the refusal to be distracted. It is a long, hard stare at these realities. Not to draw out a long-face and descend into morbid thoughts, but to see are the marks of death that still cling to us. Our sins, our areas of continuing unrepentence. This isn’t to make us feel bad about ourselves but instead serves as the opportunity to free ourselves, to die not the death of rebellion and sin, but to find death at the foot of the Cross. The spiritual gravestone is not to be feared. Eliot asks, “teach us to sit still/even among these rocks.”
At the beginning of yet another Lent, consider how you have changed over the years, how you are today, and to what God is leading you towards. Even if death is in view and we must make peace with that fact, both physically and spiritually, what lies beyond is the promise of new life.