“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.