T.S. Eliot – Ash Wednesday

The excerpt below is the beginning of T.S Eliot’s conversion poem Ash Wednesday. Noted as one of his best works, Eliot shows his internal struggle for hope in the midst of despair through deep and beautiful imagery. What he concludes is paradoxically both complex and simple – in all of his intellectual wanderings, philosophical gymnastics, and literary achievements, he is found wanting and desperate. In the text below, he refers to himself like an eagle: in the past he would flap his wings to show power – finding meaning in himself and purpose in what he could produce – that is, until a peculiar Grace unraveled and reoriented his will.

Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of lent; a somber season where we consider our humanity and remember Christ’s subsequent march to Calvary. Today also “marks” in a literal way: ashes are placed on foreheads to signify our mortality and need for a Savior. Complex humans, with all of the ways we beat our own wings to make much of ourselves, are marked with ash to show a simple truth: to dust we shall return. What then shall we do?!

In the words of Eliot on this somber day, we are to pray:

“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Ash Wednesday | T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?


Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

photo credit: The Columbian

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