Eliot's "Burnt Norton" is a work which masterfully handles the problem of time. Many are the avenues through which Eliot leads this query: memory, poetry, art, liturgy, Eucharist. And yet the fundamental question concerns our own response: what are we to do about time? What happens if we do nothing? Does Christianity have anything to offer this problem, and if so, what is it? Eliot, in effect, presents us with two paths, in the style of Matthew 7:13-14: there is a narrow way which leads to life and happiness, and a broad way which leads to destruction and despair. In this article, I would like to address the response of those on the narrow way and those on the broad to the problem of time, the final destination of each, and the means to arrive at that destination.
Before examining each path in particular, we need to understand the problem as Eliot has framed it. The human person finds himself a halfling of sorts, being conscious of time (the cosmic flow of events outside of man, and his own interior sense of it), and so in some way outside it: "to be conscious is not to be in time."** And yet man is bound by the limitations of time, expressed through the memory of the past, the endless flow of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, none of which can be escaped. Time, it seems, is a "ridiculous sad waste," stretching ever forward and back, and yet a queer necessity for us as humans. The quest then for Eliot is not so much to define time as to pinpoint its existential meaning.
And this is the problem those in the world (on the broad path) cannot address. Those in the world find themselves "in a dim light...[in] neither plenitude nor vacancy," which is to say they neither feel the brilliance of eternal (timeless) beauty, nor the joyful fire of hopeful darkness. Time, for those in the world, has no meaning, no end. Rather, it is is the endless stretch, a consuming horizon sprawling ever before them and ever behind them. This endless flow robs the past of meaning, making memory a mere mausoleum, a "bowl of rose leaves" covered in dust. There is neither meaning in the future, the present, or the past, in the same way that a sailor sees little meaning in each wave that bobbles his skiff. The problem of time is solved by decrying the problem absurd.
In what state does this leave the world, then? As "men and bits of paper, whirled about by the cold wind that blows before and after time" with "strained, time-ridden faces/distracted from distraction by distraction." In other words, Time chews men up and spits them out. Without meaning, time causes men to live lives of "quiet despair" in sensual pleasure ("appetency") and distraction, "filled with fancies and empty of meaning," because the truth of nihilism is itself too gruesome to view head-on. While for the Christian, time itself points to the meaning, for those "in the dim light" of the world, time points to nothing but the grave: "time and the bell have buried the day." And the only logical response to this is to give oneself over to appetites and sense pleasure, seeing no hope for the future and no significance in the past. Indeed, St. Paul's words ring true: "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor. 15:32).
The Christian imbues time with hope and significance in Christ and His New Creation, and Eliot being a devout Anglican is quite aware of this. For the Christian, time is teleological: "the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning and after the end." According to Eliot, the Christian sees time, not as a Euclidean line extending infinitely in both directions, but more as an arrow, shot with an intended purpose contained within it from the moment the bow was taut. Time is moving somewhere, it is flowering, it is unfolding: "time past and time present are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.". The echoes of St. Augustine's City of God are unmistakable here: time has an end, and as we shall see, that end is firmly stamped with the mark of the cross.
To what end are we drawn, then, according to Eliot? Simply put, it is "the still point": "At the still point of the turning world...there the dance is, and there is only the dance." In this point, all creation (both new and old), including time, is "made explicit, understood." At this still point, we are freed from the "practical desire," from "action and suffering," from the "enchainment" of the fleshly distractions experienced by those "filled with fancies." And yet, what is this point? And how is it a dance? It is my contention that this point is nothing else -- could be nothing else -- other than the Holy Trinity itself. What other "dance" can we imagine at the center of "the turning world," if not the "formal pattern" of exchange between the Son and the Father, whose infinite self-gift is the meaning and end of it all. Eliot himself points to this at the end of "Burnt Norton," citing Love as the "the cause and end of movement" and end of all desire. The "still point," is the entrance of the soul into love, into eternity. That is our end, much in contrast to that of the world: not death, but "into the silence" of Love.
But we are not there yet. It's well and good that we will arrive in the heart of the Blessed Trinity, the Inner Life of God, but what are we to do now? If the world responds to their philosophy of meaningless time through sensual pleasure, then Christians respond by asceticism: "Descend lower, descend only/Into the world of perpetual solitude...Internal darkness, deprivation/And destitution of all property, dessication of the world of sense,/Evacuation of the world of fancy,/Inoperancy of the world of spirit" (179). Asceticism is often relegated to either the romantic or geriatric categories -- something for pious St. Francis's and old women. And yet, in Eliot's work, the only solution to the problem of time for the Christian is to purify himself of all earthly desires, to act as if time, "woven in the weakness of the changing body," really were leading him into the greatest of all joys, and not merely to decay. Man must be a credible theist, as Fr. Dubay wrote in The Fire Within, preferring nothing to God. The "darkness" of human life, the apparent victory of death, is not cause for despair. Rather, the "darkness [purifies] the soul,/emptying the sensual with deprivation,/cleansing affection from the temporal." We can only conquer time by, in a sense, being liberated from the desires and fancies it engenders, while still in time in the body.
And so, our asceticism, our waiting in darkness, does not free us from time in any gnostic sense. We do not hope for a disembodied existence in a non-spatial realm. Rather Christ, who has brought time into heaven in his ascension, will create a new heavens and a new earth, a new body for each of us and a new perfected time to dwell in. In this sense, it is "only through time [that] time is conquered," by living, in a sense, as a sacrament of perfect time to come. Only by the narrow path of asceticism and darkness can we arrive in time perfected, at the "still point" in the Heart of the Trinity in the New Creation. That is our hope and our liberation: not to be conquered by time and death, but to answer the question of time with the hope of the cross.
**All quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from Collected Poems by T.S. Eliot.