Yesterday I came across a line by poet T.S. Eliot that struck me so soundly that I drove immediately to the bookstore and got a copy of his book of verse Four Quartets.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well …
(T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” V in Four Quartets)
“A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)” … wow. As I read the rest of this section of verse, I realized I had heard many pieces of it before, but these two lines were like a sword piercing my soul.
Simplicity is a complex word. It’s nuanced and multivalent, seemingly contradictory in itself.
Main Entry: sim·plic·i·ty (Merriam-Webster)
1 : the state of being simple, uncomplicated, or uncompounded
2 a : lack of subtlety or penetration : innocence, naiveté b : folly, silliness
3 : freedom from pretense or guile : candor
4 a : directness of expression : clarity b : restraint in ornamentation : austerity
Depending on how you read it, simplicity can be a good thing or a bad thing. Which meaning did Eliot have in mind for these verses? And, perhaps more importantly, what meaning does the reader perceive as she or he reads these verses? Reading this, reflecting on it, has become a part of my prayer for today, a kind of lectio divina or “sacred reading” as I try to see what God might be saying to me through my being captured by these words.
I find that many times when I am struck soundly by something out of the blue that I can use the experience to “unpack” some kind of call from God. It might be a call to attend to a pressing concern, to explore an idea further, to grow in understanding God, etc. It’s an invitation to go deeper in a new way.
A couple questions for you … how do you read Eliot’s line about simplicity? Have you had a similar experience of being “struck soundly” by a word or image or other experience?
Maria August 11, 2009 at 10:17 am
Have you read his Ash Wednesday poem? It blew me away when I first read it, and I keep coming back to it.
Sister Julie August 11, 2009 at 10:24 am
No, will have to look for it. Amazing writer.
Renee August 11, 2009 at 12:02 pm
I think T.S. Eliot’s work is very Catholic in its themes. This particular piece almost seems to speak to the crucifixion, a simple act of love that cost everything and makes all things well.
Barbara August 11, 2009 at 1:40 pm
Reminds me of the Beatitude about the pure in spirit seeing God.
GilChrist77 August 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm
I’m seventeen and have known for five years that I’m going to be a nun. I had been sure for the past year and a half that this coming year I was going to go on NET (Netusa.org) and then was going to come home for college before entering the Sisters of Life in NYC. On Thursday my mom and I went to Ann Arbor for the first vows of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist. Through some different things that happened there, God has shown me that I am supposed to join the SMME next year. It’s been one crazy week emotionally because while yes, I am incredibly excited that it’s going to happen so soon, it’s also been hitting me in the past few days that I’m going to be leaving really soon, and that’s not going to be easy at all. I don’t think that I’m going to have an extra hard time with the vows, I really don’t care about the world very much at all, I think the hardest thing for me is going to be leaving my family so soon because I’m the youngest of seven and we were all homeschooled so we spent all of our time together because we didn’t really have a choice. I’ve always been really close to my mom and dad, and I didn’t think I would be leaving this soon. What really touched me in the poem was ” (Costing not less than everything) And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well …” As I was reading that I really felt the Lord reassure me that even though it’s going to be really hard and cost not less then everything, it’s all going to be well because it’s He’s will for me.
Sarah August 11, 2009 at 9:33 pm
Eliot was an Anglican, of an Anglo-Catholic bent, which is why his work has catholic themes. The scene in Little Gidding is of a bombed-out house on a lane at daybreak, interspersed with descriptions of a shrine, Pentecost, the Crucifixion, and the costs in men in World War I. Eliot has a recurring theme of the end being the beginning and the beginning the end, which to me immediately points to the Crucifixion: life in death. Really, it’s a very simple thing to do, to die in a traitor’s stead (as Aslan puts in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), but has the ultimate cost — not less than everything. I like his recurring use of Julian of Norwich’s line.
As to the second question, these lines of Little Gidding always bow me to silence:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Thomas July 16, 2010 at 5:57 pm
“A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)”. I’ve often thought about these lines and what they might have meant for Eliot. Is he suggesting that a state of simplicity is achieved only by surrendering personal will and, if so, how can we be sure that we are aligning our will with God’s ?
Eliot’s idea of simplicity reminds me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25: 14-30. When the master travels to a distant country, he entrusts his servants with eight talents (one talent was apparently worth roughly 20 years wages to an ordinary worker): five to the first, two to the second, one to the third.
The first two servants trade their talents and double their master’s investment, but the third servant hides his talent in the ground out of fear. Is this act of simplicity motivated by lack of subtelty and penetration or freedom from pretence and guile ? The servant is unworldly, but not wise. He is punished for his timidity where he probably expected to be rewarded for his prudence.
What I think Eliot was not advocating was simplicity as a default position, after the failure of positive ambition. Living in a state of simplicity can be an ambition in itself, albeit a costly one. This line resonates with a verse from “Ash Wednesday”:
“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will”.
Is it possible to live with the gifts of joy, passion and spirit and still to allow God’s pattern and purpose to guide us in our lives ? Maybe a form of simplicity is learning to use our talents wisely while remaining at peace with the result.
Sister Julie July 18, 2010 at 10:18 am
Thomas, many thanks for your reflection and making that connection. Will include this in my meditation today. Thank you.