After This Our Exile

T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” ebbs and flows between despair and hope. For Eliot, the noise of modern life is a din that separates us from God. The “word” battles with the “Word” for affections of humankind. Indeed, the Word is “without a word,” and “Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled / About the centre of the silent Word.”

In the poem’s fifth stanza Eliot writes, “Where shall the word be found, where will the word / Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” For Eliot, there is “No place of grace for those who avoid the face / No time to rejoice for those who walk among the noise.”

Today, it could be argued, that our world is far nosier than the one in which Eliot inhabited. We are, after all, constantly connected — and we like it that way.

Take for instance a Verizon Wireless advertising campaign from a couple years ago, which shows people doing amazing things like skydiving, surfing, partying, camping with family and more, only to ask, as people in each scene interact with a phone, “Would you be willing to give up sharing your moment? Sacrifice streaming all night long? Is is OK to drop a connection when you need it most? If you’re not on the largest, most reliable network, what are you giving up?”

For many of us, the novelty of constant connectedness has given way to expectation and entitlement. Verizon knows it, and they’re hoping to profit from it.

This is not to say connectedness is inherently bad. All things in moderation, as the saying goes. But I think it’s fair to say that our society could easily be defined as hyper-connected.

So, why all this noise? Eliot indicates, and I agree, it’s our escape valve from introspection, from seeing the darkness that lies inside, from owning up to our desperate need for a savior. By being “unstilled,” we can whirl around the Word without ever entering into the center of the Word’s silence.

Lent is a time for introspection. This hit home for me a few years back as one Sunday before Lent as we celebrated Holy Eucharist. The bell toned three times, and then there was a silent recession. A blessed silence, if you ask me.

In this silence, God meets us and restores us. Thankfully, this silence is temporary. In forty days we will celebrate the glorious resurrection in Easter, a temporal echo of the eternal song, “Hallelujah.”

In the meantime, we, like Eliot, suffer the tension of the temporal and eternal. But not without the salve of salvation. For a great cloud of witnesses and our Lord hears our cries, if only we quiet ourselves long enough to utter them honestly.

“Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks, / Our peace in His will / And even 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.”