Dust to Dust–Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

My mother died a couple of days ago. Actually, she didn’t except for in my overwrought imagination. I called her house around supper time, when I knew she’d be home. After a series of rings, just about the time I expected voicemail to pick up, I heard the sound of a connection. Then a couple of bumps and clicks, as if someone were dropping the phone. And then nothing.

I called out and then listened, to see if I could hear a voice, but no voice ever came. Only a few more bumps and rattles came over the line. After a brief pause, I jumped in my car to check things out, imagining that I would find her incapacitated, an arm outstretched where it had just managed to knock the phone off the hook. I’d love to claim that I was thinking very philosophical thoughts, like today’s text from Koheleth:

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. 20 All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

The reality of human life is that it terminates in human death. We all know that, but we typically don’t like to talk about it. Instead, we use euphemisms and avoidance. T.S. Eliot picked up the truth in The Waste Land:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

We’re all dying with a little patience. No one wants to talk about it, but my three-month-old granddaughter is dying with a little patience. And there lies the ultimate futility of Ecclesiastes. Everything that makes up our lives is pointless, because we’re all dying. Everything we do for other people is pointless, because they’re all dying.

Our death, and the death of every person to appear before or after us on this earth, has been guaranteed since Genesis 3, when Eve and then Adam proved unable to walk by the one off-limits tree in the Garden. God had warned them:

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.

Genesis 2:17

We tend to read that verse as meaning that Adam and Eve should have died the day they ate the fruit, but what it actually means is that the day they ate of it, they were guaranteed that they would eventually die. Before the fruit, no death. After the fruit, certain death–with a little patience.

Getting in Tune

As it turned out, my mother was fine. Apparently it was my phone that was out of sorts. But eventually the end will come for her, just as it will come for me. Everything is futile.

There’s a reason, I think, that older people tend to turn their minds toward eternity and God. The nearer we get to the end of the road, the more we’re inclined to recognize the futility of the things that we pass along the road, the things that we try to make so important.

If we’re going to eventually recognize the futility of living for this life, wouldn’t it be sensible to beat the crowd and start focusing on eternity right away?

Although I Do Not Hope–Ash Wednesday

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

t-s-eliot-people-page-2In 1930, three years after his 1927 conversion to Christianity, poet T.S. Eliot published Ash Wednesday. Like his more celebrated work The Waste Land (which I believe is actually a Christian poem as well), this one is extremely evocative and endlessly difficult. Where a contemporary American poet, Robert Frost, wrote exceptionally clear poems layered with literal and figurative meaning, Eliot mostly wrote works that defy any sort of absolute interpretation. In Ash Wednesday, he clearly alludes to various elements in a broader cultural vocabulary, but these words do not easily add up to form totally coherent sentences.

At the top of the first and last sections of the poem, we encounter repeated lines, which themselves repeat with variations.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Written after his “turn” or conversion to high-church Anglicanism, the first line can be read to indicate that Eliot does not want to turn again, to turn away the object of his faith. In that sense, the poem begins (and ends) with a bit of pious orthodoxy, yet the second line cuts back on it, lopping off three words to give us a sentence of despair: “Although I do not hope.” The third line suggests a lack of hope for change. Given that the poem is named for the first day of the penitential season of Lent, which meant more to Eliot than to people of my tradition, we might read these lines as a statement of faith but at the same time a confession of a fleshly, sinful nature.

Throughout this work, Eliot embraces the difficulty of human existence. As spiritual creatures, we strive upward, but as flesh-bound creatures, we know ourselves and that our inclination seems to always return downward. We might hope to turn toward God, but we know that such turning will ever be imperfect. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

That battle between spirit and flesh is what creates the “tension between dying and birth,” which we saw above. The beauty of our faith is not that we get it right or that we ever manage to win that battle. The beauty is that while we live in that time of tension, while we struggle with an inability (on one level) to hope, we know that on another level, hope is alive and invincible.

How do we win? We don’t. I do not hope to turn, but I don’t have to turn, for I have been turned. Like the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea, I don’t have to fight. Instead, I can know that, allowing God to fight for me, I can be delivered from the “Egyptians” who afflict me.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

There is the answer. We don’t have to answer all the questions so long as we do not mock ourselves with self-delusion. We don’t have to act, except to act by sitting still. Eliot reminds us, as we reflect on our sin, to care and not to care. This isn’t him simply playing with words. We are indeed to care and not to care. We must care about our sin but not care about our inability to triumph over it. We must care that we fall short of God’s holiness but not care that we are not God.

In the end, the final line of the poem is our best prayer:

And let my cry come unto Thee.