Advent and the Paradox of Time

Advent Sunday 2019 The commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon 1637

On a bleak, grey, winter’s afternoon in 1936 the poet T.S. Eliot visited St John’s church in the hamlet of Little Gidding, lying in the heart of the Huntingdonshire countryside, about 30 miles northeast of Cambridge. This visit became the foundational inspiration for his poem of the same name, published in 1942 as the final quartet of his collection known as the Four Quartets.

The poem’s publication had been delayed by a year due to the disruption of the London Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s nightly blanket bombing of London between September 7th, 1940 and May 11th, 1941. There are two convergences of time and place as Eliot juxtaposes the fire of the Holy Spirit with the firary air-raids on London. He also connects the memory of Nicholas Ferrar and the 17th-century experiment in spiritual community at Little Gidding with the experience in the England of 1941.

In 1625, after the loss of much of their fortune with the collapse of the Virginia Company the Ferrar family retreated to their estate at Little Gidding. In 1626, Nicholas Ferrar was ordained deacon by Bishop Laud. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud led the suppression of the Puritans and it was by the skin of his teeth that one Roger Williams managed to embark for Massachusetts with Laud’s commissioners hot on his heels.

Under Nicholas’s leadership, the extended Ferrar – Woodnoth family formed a brave experiment in spiritual community. Although not in any formal sense a monastic community, the family led a disciplined life of prayer, work, and pastoral care modeled on High Church (ancient catholic) principles and the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer. King Charles 1st visited the community three times and on his last visit sought refuge there after the defeat of the Royal Army at battle of Naseby in 1645.

Although Nicholas died in 1637 the community continued under the leadership of his brother, John, and their sister, Susana Collet, until their deaths in 1657.

It’s Eliot’s reflections on the multidirectional interplay of time that is of particular interest for us on this Advent Sunday, which falls by happy coincidence in 2019 on the same day the church commemorates Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment.

Eliot, himself a High Churchman and staunch member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, strongly identified with Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment. A major theme running through the poem is that of humanity’s suffering, which can only be overcome by recognizing the lessons of the past and focusing on the unity of past, present, and future — a unity that Eliot asserts is necessary for salvation. 

While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

Eliot reminds us that the way we normally think of time as a chronological sequence in which time flows only in one direction – from the past towards the future through the present is not the only way we actually experience time. In memory and in imagination time flows back and forth. Present-time actions can mitigate the outcome of the past. While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

It’s this notion that the present can be reshaped by the echo of the past -something Eliot was very conscious of as he worked to find language that expressed his sense of the multidirectional flow of time between his English present – London during the saturation bombing in 1940-41  and a very present past -the brave spiritual community of Little Gidding between 1630 and 1660.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
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
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding

In Advent the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Poignant is a wonderful word. It means deeply evocative of feeling. Advent is the most poignant of the Church’s seasons. It’s a panoramic season in the sense that the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Our minds and language are so conditioned by the notion of chronological time that it’s impossible to escape arranging things sequentially. Yet, Advent challenges this whole approach for at the same time as we recall the Incarnation through the birth of Jesus, we also simultaneously contemplate his ultimate return. As Eliot would put it, you can’t make a beginning without arriving simultaneously at the ending. Incarnation (first coming) and Parousia (second coming) – both pulsate continually shaping our experience of the present-time life of the resurrection.

Although we structure time as a single directional flow from past through the present into the future hope emerges from our actual experience of time’s multi directional flow.

Advent is synonymous with hope. But is this hope merely the faint echo of a once upon a time –an echo of and in those days? Or is it simply a wishful longing for something that has yet to arrive – an exercise in risking disappointment.

Can despair be preferable to disappointment. The truth is, many of us willingly choose despair over the risk of of facing the possibility of disappointment – which is the price of hope. Afterall, as my grandmother used to say: you can’t miss what you’ve never had. The root of this sentiment is – don’t hope for things you might not get.

Chronologically speaking, between the birth of Jesus and his final return lies in the present time the life of the resurrection. Advent invites us into something more than a mere chronological sequence – A precedes B which is followed by C. Advent invites us to risk the courage to hope as Paul Tillich titled his little book. Because:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. .

Or an another of my 20th-century heroes – the great psychoanalyst Alice Miller, stated:

We are who we have been waiting for.

But for me T.S. Eliot must have the last word. In the second of his Four Quartets which Eliot titled East Coker after his ancestral village, which together with Little Gidding he also visited in the earlier part of 1937. In the third section of East Coker Eliot brings out the paradox at the heart of the Christian virtues of hope, love, and faith. He asserts a distinction between the action and the supposed object of the action. Listen:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope – For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love – For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith – But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S.Eliot in East Coker

Advent reminds us that expectation depends on the patience born of waiting. But waiting is not idleness. That for which we wait compels us to turn away from our hard-hearted complicity with injustice, and forge new pathways for the kingdom’s coming, one step and one breath at a time.

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