In My END Is My Beginning

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
These verses begin the second of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets, and vividly illustrate a cycle of renewal and decay that Europe had come to know all too well. Writing during the beginning of the Second World War, Eliot was not the only person to blame the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles for creating an atmosphere in which military conquest once again became an attractive option for Germany. And this, it seems, is only the most recent iteration of a cycle that began even before memory.

Houses rise …houses fall (Habsburg, Medici, Lancaster, Tudor, Stuart)…houses crumble…houses are extended, removed, destroyed, restored. In their place you might find an open field, a factory, or even a regional airport.

It is not just the seasons that repeat themselves; it is history itself. Thinkers from Cicero to Santayana have worried about this trend. Albert Camus even wondered if such a life was worth living at all. I…do not.

I worry about remembering to buy and write half of my Christmas cards early so I can get them to Scotland before the holidays. I worry about remembering to give Dougal his worming pills every three months. I worry about getting to church on time with a baby and a toddler who seem as if they’ll never be ready to go. I worry…I make copious notes in my calendar…and I get on with life.

Last month Hayley and I led a contemplative retreat in rural Maryland for a group of young adults. While the days leading up to our departure were filled to overflowing with meetings, emails, and other preparations, our time there was spacious and wonderfully calm. I began the first day of our retreat quietly watching the sun come up over the mountains. It was wonderful to have absolutely nothing else to do, but part of me couldn’t accept that this was the case. Surely there were some emails to answer. What am I going to say in next Sunday’s sermon? Is my brother really happy at graduate school? What if something goes wrong with the Church website? Are my parents going to retire soon? Where will they go?

These thoughts jumped in and out of my head all morning. Although I was staying in a place designed to be stress free, at a retreat with an intentionally open schedule, I found it hard to slow down. It was not until our group began its 12-hour silence that I began to process what was going on: I wasn’t being present. I was at the retreat center, sitting in a circle with a dozen young adults, but my mind was somewhere between Maryland and New Vernon. And just as I had this thought, the ringing of a bell interrupted. The bell called me back…back to the retreat center, back to the circle where our speaker had just rung it to signal the end of our silence. “Every one of us needs an hour of prayer each day,” she said, “except when we’re really busy. Then we need two.”

This sounds obnoxious at first, but I am more and more inclined to agree—if not with the literal truth of the statement, at least with its sentiment. The busier we are, the more we have on our minds, the more difficult it is for us to be really present. To really listen to the people we are with. To notice what’s going on around us. To notice what’s going on within us.

Presence—being open and aware—is the goal of contemplative spirituality. Being open and aware of yourself, of your surroundings, of others. And most importantly, being open to and aware of God’s presence in all three of these. Contemplative prayer is the attempt to cultivate this openness and awareness. It can take many forms, but all of them have this basic intention: encouraging a pause, a break from business as usual, and helping us look at things from a different perspective.

On November 27 the Church marked the beginning of Advent, a season in the church year when we reflect on Christmas… commemorating Christ’s birth many years ago and anticipating his return. Advent calls the CHURCH to be contemplative. It calls us to pause and look at things from a different perspective. It is a season when we reflect on how Jesus’ birth, life, and death have changed the world. It is a season when we realize that God’s activity in the world is not yet complete and that we are invited to join with God in the ongoing work of his kingdom until it comes again.

Eliot’s poem begins in despair at the inevitability of life and history, but somewhere along the way the resignation fades. Science and industry HAVE changed the world. Mathematics is hailed as the purest language, and Science is nearing complete knowledge of the universe. But this, thinks Eliot, is not the ONLY way of knowing. Science and Industry have also made it possible to create death and chaos on a scale never seen before. There is more to knowing than numbers and mechanics. There is more to history than an inevitable repetition of growth and decay.

As we commemorate the birth of Christ, we also look forward to his return. Year after year, the season of Advent invites us to pause…to still ourselves…and to notice that God is STILL at work in the world. In pausing, in taking time to be open and aware, we are better able to notice the divine fingerprints that cover our lives, and in this realization we are able to declare that history is not bound by its beginning to be forever repeated. We are able to declare that our world was begun with its end already in sight. Eliot’s poem concludes by turning his opening line on its head:
In my END is my beginning.

This Advent, let us give thanks to God and take time to be still. Every one of us needs an hour of prayer each day, except when we are really busy. Then we need two.