"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

We will not be burning roses to ashes here today, but palms.  Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer and penance, especially for Roman Catholics. 

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread,

Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken;

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

                                         -Genesis 3:19

There is a great poem by T.S. Eliot, titled "Ash Wednesday."  It's a long and complicated poem, but it's one of my favorites, and I always turn to it on this day.  It is too long to quote in its entirety but I will quote what I think is the most beautiful part, Part II.

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Read the entire poem here.  You may not get it all, and trust me, I don't get it all either.  But it's worth reading.


  1. Thanks--love this. I don't (can't) try so much to understand but to pick up the feel of it.

    1. Thank you Kelly. I was reading the entire poem earlier and I think I realized the more I read it the less I understand it. If he didn't have so many vague references then we could probab ly figure it out. Even in this section I quote above, I have no clue who the Lady is. Perhaps an intimate personal reference which we can never know. So the poem is locked in mystery.

  2. I think TS Eliot is an acquired taste which I confess I've not yet developed but he gets you to thinking, that is for sure. Never knew he wrote a poem called "Ash Wednesday".

  3. @Joyce - Yes it's definitely an acquired taste. Ash Wednesday is I think Eliot's first big religious poem. He had a religious experience that caused everything after that to be some sort of religious expression. Being the first, I think it has some deficiencies. In parts it's too abstract. The part I quyote is not, and that's why it's so much better. He learned from writing this and improved. The Four Quartets (his last major work) is a magnificent work.