The following is adapted from the commencement address given to the first graduating class of the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. The ceremony was held on August 4, 2007, as part of the MFA residency that is held concurrently with Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“In my end is my beginning.”
IT IS FITTING that at this residency—the last for you who are graduating—we have been reading and studying T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets. For many readers, Four Quartets is the most powerful and resonant exploration of Christian faith in the annals of twentieth-century poetry. It is also the kind of poem that, once you fully absorb it, tends to follow you around everywhere, interpreting your life—it possesses that sort of metaphysical urgency.
This poem has been called Eliot’s Paradiso, after the infernal visions of Prufrock and The Waste Land and the purgatorial fires of Ash Wednesday. It’s not hard to see why many have used this Dantean framework to characterize Eliot’s poetic career. And there are, in fact, several moments in the Four Quartets when we feel that we have stepped into a shaft of sunlight and caught the edge of an epiphany, a glimmer of grace in the form of children’s laughter hidden in the shrubbery.
But Four Quartets is hardly a depiction of etherized bliss. Eliot’s old, neuralgic anxieties are all still twitchily present. The “Unreal City” of The Waste Land reappears in the form of a Tube ride: we find ourselves, once again, in a dim, twilight world, bored and alienated, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
In Eliot’s bracing, if severe, vision, even the grandest of human faculties and endowments fail to capture and hold the experience of the divine. Take, for example, our capacity to use language to communicate meaning. Eliot makes a central theme of Four Quartets the way that “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break” under the burdens we place on them, both because of their own inadequacy and because “shrieking voices” in the culture at large strip them of meaning through overuse and terrible simplifications.
Nonetheless, Eliot holds that literature can serve as a countervailing force to the shrill voices that are too much with us. Literature is language shaped in such a way that readers are drawn inward toward a still point, the place where mystery and beauty re-saturate words with meaning. As a ghost-poet says to Eliot late in the poem, the mission of literature is to “purify the dialect of the tribe.”
Over the course of the past two years, you have experienced what Eliot calls “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” How difficult and elusive that task can be, this ordering of words so that the result is a “complete consort dancing together.” As you know well, every writer faces the terror of beginning, a dread rivaled only by the struggle to find an ending that achieves a sense of fullness, if not of completeness or closure.
Eliot understands these fears, but he has wrested a modicum of hope from his own long vocation as a writer: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.” By repeating the word “end” Eliot is up to his old linguistic tricks, piling various meanings on top of one another. “End” is not only a cessation, conclusion, mortality but also a goal, fulfillment, destiny—what a thing is made for.
The Seattle Pacific University MFA is a program that dares to place the craft of writing alongside sustained reflection upon “ends.” With Eliot we believe that the end of our createdness as human beings is to participate in the mystery of divine grace. Contrary to the secularist’s stereotype, this is not a smug assertion but an invitation to humility, a recognition of our fragility as fleshly creatures made of humus, earth. “Humility,” Eliot says, “is endless.”
In the Christian tradition God insists that our salvation must come in and through the weakness of the flesh—a fact that many believers, preferring their deus to be ex machina, tend to forget. As Eliot puts it in “The Dry Salvages”: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” Or, to use Saint John’s formulation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
To know one’s end is not the same as having reached it. The flesh must endure passion and death before it is transformed. Therein lies the drama. Now Eliot’s epigraph from Heraclitus becomes clear: “the way up and the way down are the same” because God’s descent is the same as the raising of our humanity to the divine (the drama the Eastern Church calls theosis).
As writers, then, we can gain some confidence that our words may contain their end in their beginning. Everything we write is a “raid on the inarticulate,” at once utterly insufficient and utterly necessary. And unless our words are firmly grounded in the flesh and suffer the passion of our fallen condition, they will become lifeless abstractions and join the shrieking voices that dominate our culture—and our churches.
This is the challenge you have faced. The difficulty of the task remains. But, as Eliot reminds us, there are aids that can help us persevere through our confusion and weakness: “These are only hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses; and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” In the course of this rigorous degree you have been given the opportunity to develop these five habits of being. May they stand you in good stead as you face each new beginning.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.