Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

From Venus to Virgin

“Lustrous among the cloudbanks,” the goddess Venus descended into the grove of oak trees, telling her son, Aeneas, that her gifts were of divine origin, forged by the fires of her husband, Vulcan. Venus embraced Aeneas as she offered him the weaponry and armor. He, amazed, looks each piece over, one by one, unsure whether to be more shocked that his mother was a goddess or that she had defied her own father to aid him.

He cannot get enough of them, filled with wonder,

turning them over, now with his hands, now his arms,

the terrible crested helmet plumed and shooting fire

the sword-blade honed to kill, the breastplate, solid bronze,

blood-red and immense, like a dark blue cloud enflamed

by the sun’s rays and gleaming through the heavens.

Then the burnished greaves of electrum, smelted gold,

The spear and the shield, the workmanship of the shield,

No words can tell its power.

For there, upon the shield, was the entire story of Rome, its past, its present, and its future, for Vulcan possessed the power of the seer, and directed by his wife, he had written it all.

Armed by his mother’s confidence and gifts, the half-god Aeneas of the destroyed city of Troy conquered his Latin foes, creating a new people that would rule the Mediterranean for over a millennium.

As Socrates awaited his execution by the hands and vote of the Athenian people in 399BC, a “woman in white” appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that in three days, he would spend eternity with his people and the gods in the land of Phthia. Socrates found more comfort in this dream, than in all of his own logic or the reassurances of his best friend, Crito.

When two Lakota warriors—the first representatives of their people—traveled onto the Great Plains of North America, they encountered a vision of the Great Buffalo Woman, a being shrouded in white light. One of the Lakota could not see passed her beauty and immediately felt lust in his heart. The other, though, saw her for what she really was, the lawgiver. The Great Buffalo Woman destroyed the lustful one, but she rewarded the other with the laws to govern his people, the laws by which all good Lakota would live.

At the moment a young Celtic man needed a tangible sign to unify his warring peoples, the Lady of the Lake emerged to offer him the sword, Excalibur, to unite and lead his people into virtuous victory. So armed, Arthur created a brotherhood the ushered in a Kingdom of Summer. . . for a while.

At Princeton, an eager and enthusiastic young student asked T.S. Eliot just why were there three leopards in his poem of conversion, Ash Wednesday, and who was the lady?

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. 

To which, Eliot replied, is it not enough that the lady honors the Virgin? Pagan or not, does she not point to the Blessed Mother of God, and, thus, to God? It is more than enough, Eliot assured his audience.

When another frustrated king, an Anglo-Saxon who would one day be known as Alfred the Great, begged of God aid in his battle against the heathen Danes, not God, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to him.  As Chesterton recorded it:

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,

More than the doors of doom,

I call the muster of Wessex men

From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,

To break and be broken, God knows when,

But I have seen for whom.

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God

Like a little word come I;

For I go gathering Christian men

From sunken paving and ford and fen,

To die in a battle, God knows when,

By God, but I know why.

And, yet, like most of us, Alfred craved sureity.  If he put his faith in Mary and in God, would he be rewarded.

And this is the word of Mary,

The word of the world’s desire

No more of comfort shall yet get,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

Then silence sank.

Venus might promise victory, but Mary, rightly, only offers hope.  Yet, it is a hope that breaks the bounds of the world, and shows us eternity.

Sermon: Feast of St. Stephen

From: T.S. Eliot’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL.

The Archbishop preaches in the Cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170.

Sermon
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word “peace.” Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

End of Sermon