from "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
T.S. Eliot, 1917
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
. . .
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I have selected the antipodes of the poem, because in them we see the drama of the last century which extends into this one.
As believers we are subject to innumerable challenges. Each of these is God's way of testing us. Testing here means not examining, but rather refining, making us durable--as gold is tested in fire. God does this not to torment me, but rather "to lead us to an overwhelming question." The problem is that too often, like Prufrock, we refuse to ask the question--we divert our attention elsewhere.
God's ways do sometimes seem like a "tedious argument of insidious intent." Indeed, from the point of view of the selfish ego, what God asks of us is insidious indeed. We can see the fear and the crisis it causes in the desires of a million people to reform the Church each in their own image. One group desires ordination for women, another agitates for freedom from contraception, another says that if only we had married Priests we would not have this, that, or the other crisis. Many do not wish to serve the Church as it is. Many do not desire to serve the truth unless they have first recast it in their own image.
But God leads each of us individually to the overwhelming question. He does not ask a gaggle of thousands, He asks me, personally. As a result the events that lead to that question are different for each person. What they call from each person is different.
What is the overwhelming question? I think that the question which has become more pressing and more urgent throughout the last century and into this one, the question that has been prevalent through all of time is "Do you love Me?" The form that this question has taken on more and more is , "Do you trust Me?"
Many of us no longer live in anything recognizable as the neighborhood of our youth. Many have people who live in houses all around them, but there is no communal sharing. In fact, the only contact one is likely to have with one's neighbor is the notice to weed your lawn from the community association, or perhaps a lawsuit for some perceived infraction or another. Some of our priests plunged us into a crisis of trust with the pedophilia scandal. Each day we read headlines that reinforce to us that we cannot be too careful with our money, our children, our possessions, ourselves. In September of 2001 we suffered a tremendous blow against our security which still has many of us reeling. There is nothing to trust. The overwhelming question indeed overwhelms us and we look another way.
But St. Faustina Kowalska taught us, "Jesus, I trust in you." We have so unlearned trust that it is hard to learn this lesson. We need to remake our entire lives to reify this truth--to manifest it to the world. And there are consequences for refusing to do so. There are consequences for not answering the question. These too are spelled out throughout the poem. The person who refuses to face the question turns gradually inward becoming obsessed with everything about himself. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" Who cares? And yet, are these not the truly overwhelming questions that we face and our children face each day? Aren't we often afraid of how we will be judged when people see us? Don't we go out of our way to make a good impression? Look at the advertisements on television--tooth whitener, hair replacement, "natural male enhancement," wrinkle cream, age-spot remover, the list is endless. If you watch enough television you will eventually see an advertisement that leads to a product designed to improve every part of you. All the while we are posing, "I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach." Why? Because it will cut an impressive figure. People will see me and they will comment on how romantic, ironic, dashing, or interesting I am.
All because we refuse to face the overwhelming question.
But wait, there's more. Elsewhere in the poem we see yet other consequences of refusal. "Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." Our lives are not beautiful, romantic, and perfect. They are the apotheosis of automation, of turning self off and turning autopilot on. Time is measured out in coffee spoons, in the mundane acts of the every day. We are weighed down by our trivia. We are weighed down by ourselves. So much so that, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.//I do not think that they will sing to me." Perhaps some of the saddest lines of poetry ever written. I have come face to face with the ineffable, and because I refuse the question, because I refuse to look into the abyss of trust, I cannot experience it. I hear them singing to each other, but I am not invited to the chorus. Rather. "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea. . . Till human voices wake us, and we drown." We are submerged once again in the expectations and the forces of those who surround us. We are plunged into a sea of selfishness even though we have seen a better way.
What is the solution? "Be not afraid." Follow Jesus' admonition, listen to how our Holy Father of recent memory explained it. Do not be afraid of the overwhelming question. It is overwhelming precisely because it portends changes. Ask it anyway. "Do I love Jesus? Do I trust Jesus?" And then face the real answer as spelled out in your life everyday. For most of us I suspect the answer shall be, "Not nearly so much as I would like," or perhaps a step beyond, "No, I don't really." Perhaps we love Jesus but we have learned too well from our families not to trust anyone. Life experiences show us that humans are untrustworthy, and perverting the principle found in the first Letter of John, we say to ourselves, "If I cannot trust what I can see, how can I trust what I cannot see?" The irony is that it is precisely what we cannot see that is most trustworthy. We can be certain that under ordinary circumstances hydrogen will form one bond in which it tends to "lose" an electron. We can pretty much rely upon the Kreb's cycle. When we move from the unseen to the seen, we begin to doubt. We are children of the enlightenment. We think Descartes got it right with "Dubito ergo cogito ergo sum." But followed its full length we wind up square in the middle of solipsism, not reality.
Be not afraid. Ask the question. Answer it. And if the answer doesn't suit, choose to do something about it. Trust God. To trust Him you must know and love Him. To know and love Him, you must fill every moment with reminders of His presence. Before you start a new task, you can say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Before you begin the day, "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad." Upon retiring, "I love you Lord, my strength." Hear His word, tell the story He would have you tell. Substitute the useless, self-serving self-talk with God-talk. What He has to say is true, eternal, and infinite, what you tell yourself is limited by your own narrow perceptions.
Do not be afraid to ask the question. This our Holy Father taught. Ask and ask again. Ask every moment of every day. Ask when you know the answer to be negative and turn your heart around. "If God be for us, who can stand against?" We need to recover trust. The end of trust is being in the company of the mermaids, being in the presence of God. The end of distrust is drowning in our human surroundings. There doesn't really seem to be much of a choice. The Lord commands us in Deuteronomy, "Choose life." To do so, we must choose Him, completely and without any reservation.