The following is adapted from a commencement address given for the Seattle Pacific University master of fine arts in creative writing on August 6, 2011.
I‘D LIKE TO SHARE a few thoughts with you that I hope are appropriate for the occasion, words derived from two texts we’ve studied together, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Both were written in the years just before and during World War II; both sought to find hope amid the encroaching catastrophe—the possibility of grace and renewal in the face of a civilization being destroyed from within as well as from without.
The war had the effect of evoking deep personal feeling in both these writers, so much so that Waugh, at least, feared he had crossed the line into sentimentality. In Four Quartets Eliot returns to places that had deep psychic significance for him—places associated with his childhood and family and his adopted faith. Brideshead evoked Waugh’s escapades as a student at Oxford in the years between the wars—a time on the ambiguous cusp between the innocence of youth and a more serious, adult engagement with the world.
It might appear at first glance that the circumstances in which these books were written have little relation to the world we inhabit. But I think we should hesitate before assuming this. Our wars today may be fought in distant places, leaving our lives relatively undisturbed, but the stakes remain high. However just the cause, war is always a morally ambiguous act, tempting us to pride, the demonization of the other, and eroding our respect for human dignity.
Eliot and Waugh understood those temptations. In particular, they feared that the coarsening effect of war was reducing ancient moral bulwarks and replacing them with a utilitarian order in which the pursuit of private gain outweighed the common good. The welfare state, they came to believe, while ostensibly devoted to the common good, was ultimately little more than a mechanism for redistributing wealth; it left people locked in their alienated, private worlds.
So they sought for signs of grace in the midst of personal and social fragmentation—signs that might have the power to reawaken the modern era to its ancient sources of order. But they knew such signs were increasingly hard to see. “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” writes Eliot in Four Quartets, a statement that applies equally to the drama experienced by the characters in Brideshead Revisited.
At first glance grace may appear to be the most private and isolated thing of all—the elusive moment of personal illumination when an individual is suddenly vouchsafed a sense of the meaning of things.
But for Eliot and Waugh grace could never be understood as a strictly private experience—rather, they saw it as the bridge between the private and the public realm. If grace brought healing or forgiveness or understanding, it did so in such a way as to bring the individual back into communion with the larger bodies of church and society.
The moment of grace is also the irruption of the timeless into time; it is the intersection of sacred time, kairos, with the mundane world of chronos. For the Greeks, kairos was a time in between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens.
But what happens in that in-between time, that liminal space? To answer that we need to invoke another Greek term, one that grows out of both ancient philosophy and the gospels, the perception of meaning in the experience of logos. This term encompasses a rich cluster of associations, including “reason” and “word” or “speech.” The prologue of the Gospel of John begins: “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” and culminates in “The Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
If our lives have any order it derives from the way such encounters with the Logos enable us to perceive a pattern in our own journey through time. So, too, with the larger social order—it likewise, gains whatever order and truth it possesses through those great epiphanies of meaning that are captured in scripture, history, philosophy, and literature. Eliot says: “History is a pattern of timeless moments.”
But as Eliot reminds us: “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” The grace communicated through the timeless moment challenges our tendency to live autonomously as petty gods of our own kingdoms. That is why Eliot chose as one of his epigraphs for Four Quartets the quotation from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: “Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a wisdom of their own.”
Our tendency to lurch from living as if we have a wisdom of our own rather than being attuned to the Logos makes human life dramatic. It’s the drama that Waugh renders so powerfully in Brideshead Revisited, as his characters set off in search of love and vocation. Charles Ryder seeks to escape the boredom of his middle-class London life through his pursuit of beauty—a beauty he also glimpses in the way the aristocratic Catholics Sebastian and Julia Flyte carry themselves. It takes great tragedy and suffering before Charles is able to see that the Flytes are also trying to escape from what they perceive as the hard expectations of their social and religious responsibilities.
Because Waugh has us see the story through the eyes of the agnostic modern man, Charles Ryder, we may also miss the moments of grace that he misses, at least if we do not perceive the author’s dramatic irony. Charles is quick to notice and criticize when some members of the Flyte family treat religion moralistically, but he cannot make the connection between law and grace, between the church’s understanding of human fallenness and the deeper freedom to be found when we sacrifice our desire to live autonomously.
When Sebastian becomes a hopeless alcoholic who is reduced to looking after an even more pathetic figure, a lost soul named Kurt, Charles only sees degradation, not the beginnings of love and self-sacrifice and the slow work of redemptive suffering. Later still, Sebastian becomes a hanger-on at a monastery in North Africa—a broken man, perhaps, and yet still tethered to a community, if by the thinnest of threads.
When Charles and Julia fall in love they want to live an idyllic life apart from family, faith, and even history. Julia, like her brother Sebastian, had sought emancipation from the burdens imposed by those things. But as she moves from being a callow debutante to a denizen of the beau monde to a divorcée who has lost a child, she begins to change. Eventually, she comes to see that her relationship with Charles is closing them off from the world. It is Julia who has to remind Charles that war will soon engulf Europe and require heroic efforts to survive. In his blindness Charles cannot see Julia’s slow, reluctant, but inevitable return to the sources of order and communion she had sought to flee.
As the prophetic character Anthony Blanche tells him, Charles has reduced beauty to “charm,” a superficial sentimentality that seeks to escape from the hard edges of reality. Charles has become a painter of country houses and has gone off to South America’s jungles and ruins in search of the exotic, only to reduce it, once again, to charm. In a larger sense, he has confused the beauty of the great house at Brideshead with the grace and beauty that motivated its builders.
Charles isn’t prepared to see that beauty and indeed grace inhere in the smallest and most mundane things. And so when the roguish Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die, Charles cannot abide by the family’s desire to have him anointed with the last rites. To Charles it is “mumbo-jumbo” but to the priest who comes to the house it is the sign of a human being’s acceptance of his true condition as a broken creature in need of grace. The priest says to him: “Do you know what I want to do? It is something so small, no show about it…. I just want to ask him if he is sorry for his sin…then I want to give him God’s pardon. It is nothing, a touch of the fingers, just some oil from this little box….”
But inside that little nothing is, of course, everything. Inside that smallness is an immensity beyond our ability to imagine. It is an offer of grace.
Grace may be a gift, but the question we always have to ask is whether we are prepared to receive it. In Four Quartets Eliot suggests that we must practice certain disciplines if we are to perceive the meaning when we have the experience: “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” He goes on to suggest that art itself must practice the same disciplines if it is to capture those epiphanies of grace, both in our personal lives and in the larger realm of history.
The writer is one who uses words in such a way that they may become habitations of the logos, the Word. Obviously, that’s a tall order. Waugh said that in his novel he wanted his words to show “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” He admitted that such an aim was perhaps presumptuous, but for the writer of faith this is a presumption that we must risk. Anything less would involve an attempt to escape from our vocation.
What you graduates will find, I think, as you pursue this vocation, is that the difficulty of the task will inculcate a humility that will counteract presumption, especially if you practice the disciplines that Eliot recommends and which this program has attempted to form in you.
Do not allow yourselves to substitute charm for the beauty that is at once more terrible and more glorious. Approach the act of writing not as an attempt to impose meaning but as a stumbling act of exploration that may, God willing, blunder into both meaning and grace. Know that however humble your literary creations may be, they must always strive to connect their timeless moments to the timeless moments that are our inheritance as a culture and our identity as the people of God.
As Eliot put it:
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. 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.