In my beginning is my end…
In my end is my beginning (East Coker I:1, V:36).
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from… (Little Gidding V:1-3).
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time (Little Gidding V:27-29).
T. S. Eliot’s poems, The Four Quartets, are an endless source of mystical insights. As we get older time is more vital and Eliot was particularly absorbed with the meaning of time in these poems. Awareness of our finitude awakens us to questions of meaning, especially suffering and death. Recently I attended the funeral of an older Christian friend who had been tragically killed by a careless driver. In the midst of all our grief the pastor quoted the words of Jesus from Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”. Another version of the same saying is given in Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty”. It became clear to me that Eliot’s references to beginnings and endings are related to these texts. If one believes that God is the beginning and the end of all things, then one is encouraged that the meaning of life does not come to an end with death. All that is most precious and vital carries on. We come to a threshold and we discover a beginning.
In “The Dry Salvages” Eliot says the point where the timeless intersects with time is incarnation. Here God becomes human in those who are God’s partners, supremely demonstrated in Jesus (DS V:17-19, 32-33). This is “an occupation for the saint” and requires “a lifetime’s death in love”. The immediate and direct awareness of God in those timeless moments gives rise to a loving and sacrificial response. Some critics thought Eliot went off the rails with his Christian devotion, removing himself from the mainstream of 20th century poetry. But for me and many others he gets the right word every time. The challenge for every human being is acceptance of and co-operation with God’s will. Contemplation and humility are the path forward, but for all of us who struggle on the path there is comfort in his words, “we are only undefeated because we go on trying”. It is love beyond desire that gives true freedom – detached from selfish desires, set free to serve the other. This is often the path of suffering in one form or another.
There are many endings and beginnings in life. Graduations, relocations, unemployment, divorce, young adults moving away, disability, natural disasters – all endings and beginnings, deaths and births. We repeat the cycle until we get the message that love is born of suffering, that joy comes after mourning. Always Christ is present and waiting to be discovered in our endings and beginnings. The discovery of love, the end of all our exploring, is a slow cyclical process, always bringing us back to the same source, God in human life, Jesus. The end is where we start from.
This poetry was particularly poignant for the people of Britain in 1942 when Eliot wrote Little Gidding. World War II was the end of the world they had known but their hope for a new beginning was resilient. Today, as the world turns from threats of ecological devastation to threats of nuclear war, we need a similar faith and resilience. As President Kennedy once said, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced he world would be a better place in which to live” (Speech at Harvard, June 1956).