As we all know, the Christian life is not always that simple. There is something to be said about why stories of the saints and stories of converts to the Faith are dramas of the highest caliber. I think we can learn a lot about the drama of the Christian life through the works of T.S. Eliot, one of the twentieth century’s major poets.
Eliot converted to Christianity in 1927 when he was 39 years of age. He became more fervent in his faith until his death in 1965. Eliot’s poetry is often divided by his conversion. Before his conversion, his notable works are “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and “The Hollow Men” (1925). After his conversion, he is known for “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and Four Quartets (1943).
Four Quartets is often considered to be one of the most important works of the twentieth century; it led to Eliot’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in my opinion, is the most incredible summation of the Christian life in poetry—only surpassed by Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320).
Without revealing too much about the poem (I hope that you will read it here!), I wish to share with you a relevant section. Eliot writes about the saints whom we should emulate, and how difficult that is:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
This section can be found in the second of the Four Quartets, “East Coker,” in the final section of the poem, section five.
On one level, Eliot is speaking about writing, and the timeless struggle to produce great literature. He is probably referring to Shakespeare, Dante, and other great authors in regards to emulation. On another level, Eliot is commenting on the Christian life and emulating the saints that have come before us. Eliot speaks of the struggle of living an authentic Christian life— “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again.” But he sums up the task of Christian life quite simply, like the Scripture passage in the calling of St. Matthew: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” We shouldn’t let ourselves be consumed with all the exterior drama and complications of everyday life (though these things are important to function effectively in the world), but with the simplicity of Christian life.
Get up and follow Jesus, and don’t ever stop trying.
And read some TS Eliot in your spare time!
Question for Reflection: What prevents you from simply getting up and following Jesus?