Ross Douthat says that our Notre Dame Cathedral–an edifice constructed by thousands of creative people over the course of many years that expresses their deepest beliefs and values–is the Marvel Comics Universe as capped off by the movie Avengers: Endgame. In making that comparison, he quotes some lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:
And the wind shall say: ” Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls”.
That inspired me to take up that poem again, which Eliot–the definitive modernist poet who converted to Christianity–wrote for a play (actually, more of a pageant) entitled “The Rock” back in 1934. I was astonished to see just how well he predicted what would come to flower 85 years later. So here are some other lines describing our “modern” and “post-modern” spiritual condition (my bolds):
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God .
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
That last line can be the motto for our “information age”! The poem goes through what people had started to say in the 1930s and that has become commonplace in today’s secularist culture (particularly in England where Eliot was living), that we don’t need the church, that Sundays are for golfing and weekend getaways. We neglect, though, the reality of the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The theme of the poem is the building of the Church. (In fact, the play “The Rock” was produced as a benefit to raise money to build churches.) “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.” But it must be built upon “the Rock,” “Christ Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone.” (Yes, that’s in the poem.)
And when you build the Church, you also build the culture. And without the Church, the culture with all of its institutions flounders.
Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbour’s;
When the Stranger says: ” What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? ” We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or ” This is a community”?
There are other attempts to build a perfect society without the Church, but these are futile, with people “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
Another motif in the poem is the builder, the need for workmen, the problem of the unemployed and the need to call them to the task of building the Church and the World. Thus we have also in this poem the theme of vocation.
Read it all: “Choruses from ‘The Rock.‘”
Photo: T. S. Eliot, sinaloaarchivohistorico [No restrictions] via Wikimedia Commons