Dover Beach or Choruses from the ‘Rock’ Part I: Whitterings, October 2006

Choruses from the ‘Rock’ Part I

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mathew Arnold, 1867

Mathew Arnold’s famous poem ‘Dover Beach’ describes the withdrawing from Western society the sense of meaning and cohersion and purpose. His words still cause a shiver to run down my spine as they evoke the shadow that grows from the East over the modern world. I use it to introduce articles based on T.S. Eliot’s poem Choruses from the ‘Rock’ that wrestles with the Church’s struggle to rekindle the flame of the Gospel in a darkening world.

Both Arnold and Eliot descibe the wasteland of menainglessness and inwardness that has overtkaen us. We know it has come and have seen it in a million little ways since those photographs first apeared of the liberation of Auchwitz. We see the rise of violence, lack of community, lack of decency, lack of commitment to the wider society, the erosion of the family. Yet we still find ourselves shocked and bewildred by the events at Dawson College last week. We find ourselves at sea when confronted with the darkness of a young man who believes nothing more than that “The world sucks, people suck, school sucks, work sucks.” We are horrified by the news that there even exists an online game in which you play one of the shooters at Columbine. We struggle to connect to a society in which the average age of first sexual activity is 13 and the same for drug and alchohol experimentation. We are even more confused when we realise that this is often done with parental knowledge and consent. The only reaction to this and, or at least my reaction, as you hear the confusion and chaos over the radio as youth flee a college through a pool of blood, is tears.

But Surprised? No. It is one of my hopes in humanity that this type of occurance is not more common given the state of things. Surprised? No. Not when I see that even those youth who have been brought up in our Sunday School and youth grouups, been Confirmed, and served at the Altar of our Church drift away into amphetamine addiction, dehumanising escaptist sexual exploits, violence, and self destructive or suicidal illusions. Those who have been exposed to the the path of life, those who have been shown the way, are still being lost.

The shadow of purposlesness has even drifted across the threshhold of God’s House. Instead of providing meaning and purpose we reduce the Gosepl to personal Ego needs and ‘pop’ psychology. A good working definition of heresy is to elevate one aspect of the truth as the whole truth. Many of our church communities are such examples.

“What we call "church" is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another "helping institution" to gratify further their individual desires. One of the reasons some church members are so mean-spirited with their pastor, particularly when the pastor urges them to look at God, is that they feel deceived by such pastoral invitations to look beyond themselves. They have come to church for "strokes," to have their personal needs met. What we call church is often a conspiracy of cordiality. Pastors learn to pacify rather than preach to their Ananiases and Sapphiras. We say we do it out of "love." Usually, we do it as a means of keeping everyone as distant from everyone else as possible. You don't get into my life and I will not get into yours.”
Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens

The ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ has become deafening. We speed up and get nowhere. We cosume more and are not satisfied. The world gets ‘better’ and our youth drown. This is not better! I grow tired of those who dismiss the decay of modern society by pointing out the good while ignoring the horror and say complacently that all generations think the previous one superior. The decline of civilisations is real and has occurred consistenlty in human history. St Augustine really lived through the collapse of a once great civilisation and his reaction was not na├»ve. Those generations that live through decay are right when they look to the past! This postmodern philosophical world in which we live is not an ordered philisophical response to the world it is the shattered fragments and shards of the collapse of modernity. This is not a way towards meaning, it is just the broken remnants of a past world. We scramble thorugh a philosophical rubbish heap searching for a way out. But the human predicament is still the same and the answers are already known. The dead ends that our society recklesslly persues are the same dead ends that religions have warned of since the dawn of man.

“O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!The endless cycle of idea and action,Endless invention, endless experiment,Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,But nearness to death no nearer to God.Where is the Life we have lost in living?Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuriesBrings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock Stansa II

How many of us instill in our children and grandchildren the firm foundations that life lived for itself is a dead end? How many of us show with our lives that only a life lived for something greater than ourselves is freedom?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8.

We are the disciples of Christ, Baptised into his death and Resurrection, we are the ones chosen to witness to the world the Glory of the Cross and the liberty of those who follow The Way. We believe that we have a purpose, that our lives have meaning. We witness with our lives to a Holy Hope. The Church has a mission now which is as crucial now as it has ever been. Yet how are we to witness to beauty, love, justice, compassion, mercy and hope to such a society? I shall explore a few ideas in my next columns which I hope may further this dialogue. I finsih with an example of what we as a community of faith has to offer to those around us struggling in the shadows.

“Hoopla! All that I see arches, and light arches around it. The air churns out forces and lashes the marveling land. A hundred times through the fields and along the deep roads I’ve cried Holy. I see a hundred insects moving across the air, rising and falling. Chipped notes of birdsong descend from the trees, tuneful and broken; the notes pile about me like leaves. Why do these molded clouds make themselves overhead innocently changing, trailing their flat blue shadows up and down everything, and passing and gone? Ladies and gentlemen! You are given insects, and birdsong, and a replenishing series of clouds. The air is buoyant and wholly transparent, scoured by grasses. The earth stuck through it is noisome, lighted and salt. Who shalll ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? “Whom shalll I send,” heard the first Isaiah, “and who will go for us?” And poor Isaiah, who happened to be standing there – and there was no one else – burst out, “Here am I; send me.”
Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard

Still there is the need. Still he calls. Still there is only us. How shall we answer?