On Beginnings and Endings

What Eliot is trying to tell us is that the end will always be found in the beginning, and that when we finally do come to the end, it will have been granted to us so that once more we may return to the beginning.

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Looking over the last lines of T.S. Eliot’s fabled Four Quartets, the great masterwork on which his reputation rests, one sees in the final movement of the poem a striking reminder of that which we do well never to forget. It is the knowledge that, in this life certainly,

We shall not cease from exploration, 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

What Eliot is trying to tell us, it seems to me, putting it in a less poetical fashion, is that the end will always be found in the beginning, and that when we finally do come to the end, it will have been granted to us so that once more we may return to the beginning. But not in a way we might have expected. That is because all too often, as Eliot says elsewhere in the poem,

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We had the experience, but missed the meaning, 
And approach to the meaning restores the experience 
In a different form, beyond any meaning 
We can assign to happiness. 

And so the only reason for us to set out at all is so that we may go back to where it all began. Only this time, please God, renewed, repristinated. And thus we may truly come to know the place for the first time.  

And what is that place but the half-remembered innocence we lost so very long ago, before the serpent insinuated its poison into the fruit, leaving us bereft in a fallen world where circumstance and sin force our minds to recognize that,

The whole earth is our hospital 
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall 
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us but prevents us everywhere.

And who is the “ruined millionaire” but Adam, in whose fall we sinned all. Which is why it is the world before everything fell apart that we most long to return to, the place to which we are most drawn. “Who indeed would think himself unhappy not to be a king,” asks Pascal in the Pensées, “except one who had been dispossessed?” 

It is because we are all deposed kings and queens that we retain, however dimly, memories of what had once been. Why else are we hollowed out on the inside if not to leave room to pine for the world we left behind, the vanished Eden we cannot completely rid our memories of? “The heart is restless,” St. Augustine assures us, “until it finds rest in Thee.” And how does the soul achieve such repose? It is not self-generated, that’s for sure. It is pure gift, due to the overflowing largesse of God. As always, says Eliot, “A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)  
And all shall be well and 
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. 

So halcyon a place—indeed, we carry hints and intimations of it all our lives—has always been there, always present, even as it lies hidden away. Unseen, yes, and yet in plain sight as well. It’s a bit like Chesterton’s elusive leaf, which wears its best disguise, he tells us impishly, when hanging from a tree. Or, putting it more profoundly, as St. Catherine of Siena was wont to do, “All the way to Heaven is Heaven. Because Christ is the Way.” 

“Who plays in ten thousand places,” the poet Hopkins tells us, “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, / To the Father thought the features of men’s faces.” If the devil is in the details, why shouldn’t Christ’s presence be equally so? Especially as He takes so infinite and tender an interest in everything about us? How beautifully the point is made, again by Hopkins, in a fragment that is as much prayer as it is poetry:     

Thee, God, I come from, to Thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From Thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in Thy mighty glow.  

From least to greatest, we are embraced by the arms of God, which means we are never alone, never really far from home. Unless, of course, in refusing the company of God, we choose to take ourselves straight down into the rabbit hole of Hell, where every damned soul is free to howl its frustration forever. For the rest of us, however, once embarked upon a good thing, which is the soul’s journey home to God, we take the great circle route, which calls us from darkness to light, from death to life, from grief to glory. We go from Eden to Exile to Eternity. Thus, to sound the great theme that runs like the purest spring water through the whole of Four Quartets, we say not merely, “In my beginning is my end,” but also, “In my end is my beginning.”                         From least to greatest, we are embraced by the arms of God, which means we are never alone, never really far from home. Tweet This

There is an ancient legend according to which a long-lost sailor finds himself washed ashore on what he assumes will be an alien beach, only to discover that he has come home to his own beloved country. Chesterton has furnished the perfect image of this serendipitous discovery in his description of “an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” And lest the reader think the poor man entirely off his rocker, Chesterton assures us that it was “a most enviable mistake.

What could be more fascinating,” he asks, “than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

It is because we all want to go home, that being the place from which we started, and that owing to a wise and loving God our paths are strewn with so many glints of future glory to help us along the way. Little fireflies of longing, as it were, to remind us of a paradise we once knew and, thanks to the sacrifice of Christ, will, in due course, be returned to.  

Author

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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