A Gift From Saint Nicholas

Last week’s “Skeptic’s Collection” column probably seemed like my final word about why I never got the “hang-uv” Christianity, period. This week’s column is intended to provide a corrective gloss by way of a sequel. It is true that I never got the “hang-uv” institutional, creedal Christianity, and to that extent, and regarding that “dialect” of Christianity, that is indeed true. I never had, and still do not have, the “hang-uv” Christianity under that understanding. But a few years ago, while visiting the town of Galway, on the windswept west coast of Ireland, I had what I can only call a mystical experience – a term that, as a “para-professional skeptic,” you will know I do not use lightly -- that completely altered my orientation toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Anyway, make of the following what you will …

Perhaps three years ago, while visiting Europe, Diane and I, having discussed for some time my deep and complex roots in Ireland on my mother’s side of my family, decided that, after spending several days in London, we should fly from London to Dublin, spend several days in Dublin, then take a bus from Dublin to Galway. During our time in Galway, we went out to dinner one drizzly, misty evening, and while walking back to our hotel, took a shortcut through what turned out to be, though we did not know it at the time, the grounds of the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. Earlier, we had learned that the Church was built in 1320.  (That makes my old Oxford College, Exeter, only 6 years older than St. Nicholas Church. St. Nicholas Church was well over 300 years old when Oliver Cromwell used the Church building as a stable for his horses during his rape of Ireland in the middle 1600s. And one of the little side-chapels of St. Nicholas became the final resting place of an unknown knight whose body was exhumed and moved there after his death the century before. Ireland is old.) We had intended to visit the Church, anyway, and so, having accidentally stumbled upon it through this bit of serendipity, we decided to see if the Church was open, even though the hour was that of, not pitch-blackness, but certainly very deep, tenebrous twilight. There was no one except us around or in the Church, but to our surprise, the “Welcome” sign was still out front, and the great oaken door was unlocked and swung inward silently. Careful of our steps in the dark on the uneven 14th-century flagstones, we walked gingerly into the shadowy interior of the Church, and began to wander carefully through the interior of the sanctuary. I vividly remember wandering past the great stone baptismal font, the majestic Celtic cross, and finally sitting down in a wooden pew before the High Altar.  The sanctuary was a place of great quiet – not silence, quiet – and most of all a place of all-pervading peace. I felt … enfolded.

Now, what happened next was and remains for me the inaccessible core of my experience of St. Nicholas Church. I say “inaccessible” because, even though the memory is so vivid as to be to this day almost “real-time,” it is inaccessible if I try to cast it in words to describe it to anyone else. Words drain the life out of the experience. Oh, of course:  I can string words together – I have always been almost too good at that for my own good! – but doing justice to the experience is something else altogether. Nevertheless … as I sat in that hard, straight-backed wooden pew, words came to my mind. Please understand now:  when I say “words came to my mind,” I do not mean to say “I had a thought”. No. Quite the reverse. Rather, a thought had me. Up until this moment, I had been thinking of Oliver Cromwell stabling his horses in this hallowed space, but then the following thought interrupted my reverie like a breaking-news bulletin, yet with no sense whatsoever of coercion. My train of thought was overruled but not my sense of volition. This remains still my most powerful experience of the Numinous:  the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, all the more so because the thought that had me was a quotation from the poem “Burnt Norton”, one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

To be conscious is not to be in time.
But only in time can the moment in the rose garden,
The moment in the arbor where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered, involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Ordinarily, I would be tempted to say that, yes, of course, the pattering of the mist / drizzle outside, which was gently but distinctly audible inside the Church, and the fact that we were, indeed, inside a “draughty church” at “smokefall” – it was early autumn and the perfume of woodsmoke pervaded the air -- was naturally conducive to such a fancy, except that I had never memorized those lines from “Burnt Norton”.  Other passages from other Quartets, yes, some quite long, like that  long opening paragraph in "Little Gidding". But not those from “Burnt Norton”. And to call it some kind of "irruption from the subconscious" only reiterates the mystery without resolving it.

T. S, Eliot

But in any case, my purpose now is not to explain – least of all, to explain away – those six lines of Eliot’s. Instead, the salient point is to simply describe – merely causal explanations  being out of the question -- the effect they had on me.

In succeeding days and weeks – and eventually years – the spontaneous illumination of those lines had two inseparably related effects.  The first was that I suddenly understood Eliot’s Four Quartets with a degree of intimacy and detail I had never before achieved, despite having studied those four poems – the greatest religious poems in the English language, in my opinion – for reasons both personal and professional for the previous roughly 45 years. (I say “suddenly” understood because, in retrospect, I realize that my present understanding of the Quartets was in that moment embryonically present in its entirety much as a child’s genome is suddenly present from conception. In both cases, the rest is a matter of rendering the implicit explicit.) I have neither the space nor the time to describe in any detail what I mean by that statement, beyond two assertions:  (1) when the “thought had me” about consciousness and time, I had a flash of insight that I am not embarrassed to compare favorably with the Buddha’s flash of kensho underneath the bo tree; St. Paul’s Damascus Road experience; Muhammad’s (pbuh) encounter with the archangel Jibril in the Cave or Hira when the latter commanded him to “Recite”; St. Augustine’s initial reading of the Epistle to the Romans; Blaise Pascal’s experience of FIRE … etc. For decades, great arch-vaulted chambers of meaning and insight in the Quartets had been sealed away behind (seemingly) massive towering doors of iron and bronze. But after the “thought had me,” those doors began to swing open with the touch of a finger. And (2), for reasons that I haven’t the space to enter into in detail, I am now convinced that the distilled essence of the Four Quartets is comprehended in the quotation from Heraclitus that occurs on the flyleaf of every edition of the Quartets I have ever read:  “The way up and the way down are one and the same” (hos idian echontes phronesin). But what does this have to do with my understanding of Christianity and of having – or not having – the “hang-uv-it"?

Without exaggeration or hyperbole:  just everything. This – my revised understanding of Christianity, of religion in general -- is the second effect my experience at St. Nicholas Church had that misty, woodsmoke-scented evening in Galway. I bored you to tears describing the effect the experience had on my understanding of Eliot’s great Quartets, not as a mere exegetical exercise, but because my revised understanding of Christianity was mediated by my revised understanding of the Quartets. By finally, after almost a half-century, getting the “hang-uv” the latter, I managed – am still very much managing – to get the “hang-uv”, a new “hang-uv”, the former. The Four Quartets are turning out to be my Damascus Road, my bo tree, my command to “Recite”, my reading of Romans. (Sometimes I fancy that I know something of how Champollion felt the first time he used the Rosetta Stone to translate a cartouche of Egyptian hieroglyphs.) Were I not so reluctant to tether this insight to monotheistic ideologies -- which, I insist, would amount to giving up most of what I have gained -- I would even say that the Four Quartets were to me what the rock was to Jacob upon which he had his dream of angels climbing a ladder, and which, upon awakening, he named Beth-El (“place of God” ... "Surely God was in this place and I knew it not" -- Gen. 28:16, KJV).

Without even making an empty gesture toward unpacking the full significance of the Quartets, I will only say that one of the primary supporting themes of the Quartets is that all attitudes of Spirit and Mind, when extended far enough, when followed faithfully enough, when pursued with integrity and without compromise always -- and in time ... always time! -- eventuate into their opposites. Omnia exeunt in mysterium, as the old Scholastics used to say. (With typical whimsicality, e. e. cummings caught much of the spirit of just this when he wrote "all ignorance toboggans into know / and trudges up to ignorance again".)

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
So the Darkness shall be the Light,
And the Stillness the Dancing.

"The way up and the way down are one and the same." -- Heraclitus

And dare I -- even I, your Faithful Skeptic and Para-Professional Curmudgeon-In-Residence -- say "Skepticism issues in Belief," not in spite of being Skepticism, but because of it? I have always held that unbelief must be grasped as lightly as faith, like a feather on the back of the hand, or it, too, is just one more prejudice.

Natural question:  If all that is true, then why not just start out with Faith? Why not just start out with Belief? Why not just start out with Eternity? Most generally, why not just skip Time altogether? Start out by buying Boardwalk immediately without ever going to jail.  "Burnt Norton" does not give us the answer, but it does hint at it: "[O]nly in time can the moment in the rose garden, / The moment in the arbor where the rain beat, / The moment in the draughty church at smokefall / Be remembered, involved with past and future. / Only through time time is conquered." Even now, I don't understand all that. But it seems to have something to do with evolving into full consciousness through something like satori or Jungian individuation:  dancing the Dance until the Dance becomes itself Stillness.

"[A]nd there is only the Dance".

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Church interiors ... Personal photographs
T. S. Eliot ... Public domain

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