Eliot’s Prophecy and the Chattering Church
Fatima Perspectives #1264
T.S. Eliot was a poetic genius who, as one wag put it, had the effrontery to be a Christian. Although he never became a Catholic, so far as we know, his High Anglicanism of the 1920s and 1930s would stand in stark contrast to the spreading social and cultural nihilism of the interwar period, as to which Pope Benedict XV had prophetically warned as early as 1914, three years before the apparitions at Fatima: “Such, moreover, has been the change in the ideas and the morals of men, that unless God comes soon to our help, the end of civilization would seem to be at hand.”
Eliot’s leanings toward Christianity seeped into his poetry amidst a vast jumble of other sources and influences, forming a kind of veiled apologetic whose import, however, was not lost on his unbelieving critics. Perhaps this sort of apologetic was all the more effective for its indirection, as was Evelyn Waugh’s in Brideshead Revisited, a chronicle of despair and redemption during the interwar period and World War II, the “worse war” Our Lady predicted at Fatima as the consequence of sin and the failure to heed Her requests. In an epoch where civilization did indeed appear to be coming to an end, the Christian author had to be careful about where and how he planted his suggestions of apostasy and its consequences.
Nowhere is Eliot’s apologetic more explicit than it is in Choruses from the Rock, verses extracted from the musical play The Rock and which appear in his collected poems. Therein we read the following:
The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying:
О miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities.
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?
In a column published on Christmas Eve, Antonio Socci recalls these verses in connection with his observation that the void of modern life “fills with words (also empty): of politics, of various humanity, of gossip, of religion now become worldly chatter (on immigration, the climate, or waste separation). In the epoch of ‘in my opinion’ truth and falsity are conflated and nothing remains but to insult. Nothing fulfills expectations and nothing heals the pain of men. Among the words which still say something are those of poetry” — meaning those quoted above — “which seem to have been written for today.”
In my view, Eliot succeeded in making modern English sing in a way not possible within the traditional constraints of verse. And what does it say about our epoch that an apologetic as veiled and indeed confused as Eliot’s has more to offer than the “endless palaver” of the generality of Catholic churchmen? It says that we are in the time of an apostasy that “begins at the top” — precisely as predicted in that precious Secret whose entirety has yet to be revealed. A time in which it can be said of Church leaders: “Much is your reading, but not the Word of God / Much is your building, but not the House of God.”