Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot

Have you ever read or studied T.S Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday?

You should have, you know.

Let us not let Ash Wednesday pass without at least touching on the poem.

If you have never read or heard it, at least you can hear it here.  Alas, I and no better read it through the remnants of a cold.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. fvhale says:

    Smash Wednesday

    Because I do not hope to turn again
    Because I do not hope
    Because I do not hope to turn
    My right turn signal light was blinking
    And all the brake lights were on
    As I approached
    As I approached the driveway
    In the after-school traffic.

    Yet the driver behind did not slow
    Perhaps texting who knows?
    As I turned the veritable transitory power
    Of the impact was clear
    To me, and not the other?
    Who drove on.

    Why should I mourn
    Another swath of bumper paint gone
    Perhaps a crack in the tail light lens
    (Why should the aged car worry over another scratch?)
    The other drive flew like an eagle
    Down the road
    Never stopped.

    Why should I mourn?
    Because I cannot hope to turn again
    Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
    Upon which to rejoice

    And pray to God to have mercy upon us
    Me and the other driver who did not stop
    And pray that I may forget
    These matters that with myself I too much discuss
    Too much explain
    A bit shaken
    And annoyed
    Because I do not hope to turn again
    Let these words answer
    For what is done, not to be done again
    May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
    Me and the other driver who did not stop.

    Teach us to care and not to care
    Teach us to sit still.

    Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
    Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

    (Apologies to Mr. Eliot)

  2. jameeka says:

    Good timing, Father Z. I had never seen this poem before–beautiful

  3. oldCatholigirl says:

    I thought I had not read it–until you began to read, and parts of it echoed down the halls of time. I read it–at least fifty years ago. Thank you for letting me hear it. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but understand more than I did so long ago.
    (In all your loads of spare time :), I hope you will find time to read more poetry. Hearing poetry adds a whole new dimension to it.)

  4. Miss Jensen says:

    Thank you, Father, for this reading. I recited poetry for two out of three years in the high school speech team, and I’ve never forgotten the experience. How wonderful it is to hear the poetry! And every reader has a unique way of inflecting the lines.

    I don’t think I had come across this one before, although every poem by T.S. Eliot that I encounter makes me want to know more.

    Just for fun… what if there were an iPoems?

  5. StWinefride says:

    Thank you Father, now I can move on to something a bit more serious than the Jellicle Cats ! I remember buying the CD of « Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats » for my children – great to play on long journeys. The poems were read by Sir John Gielgud and Irene Worth.

    Now, back to Ash Wednesday… !

  6. Supertradmum says:

    I love this poem and T. S. Eliot, and Father, if you have not discovered David Jones, my favourite, check this out.

    A, a, a, Domine Deus by David Jones

    I said, Ah! What shall I write?

    I enquired up and down.

    (He’s tricked me before

    with his manifold lurking-places.)

    I looked for His symbol at the door.

    I have looked for a long while

    at the textures and contours.

    I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.

    I have journeyed among the dead forms

    causation projects from pillar to pylon.

    I have tired the eyes of the mind

    regarding the colours and lights.

    I have felt for His Wounds

    in nozzles and containers.

    I have wondered for the automatic devices.

    I have tested the inane patterns

    without prejudice.

    I have been on my guard

    not to condemn the unfamiliar.

    For it is easy to miss Him

    at the turn of a civilisation.

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I cannot recall if Eliot recorded it himself, ever – there are lots of his own poems he did, and it is always good to hear what the poet himself makes of it (and how he pronounces names – and for that matter words), though as Miss Jensen says, “every reader has a unique way of inflecting the lines”- and often more than one, from one reading to another! – and the listener may even prefer another reader to the poet.

    I have heard the complaint that David Jones reads his own work too carefully, to try to let what is in it come out… I am not sure I agree, but he does read very slowly and carefully.

    In any case, hurrah for Supertradmum for noting and quoting him. Other poems from The Sleeping Lord and other fragments (1974), are good for the season, especially the hair-raising “Fatigue” (how one can get assigned to be part of the ‘Fatigue’ at the Crucifixion!), and also for the age, “The Tribune’s Visitation”. But any of his work might be a good Lenten undertaking (with Fr. Z’s Candlemas post I was trying to remember where the line “But bright was candela” comes… in, I think, the context of liturgy surviving in a dark age, among others).

    Meanwhile, it also seems aptly Lenten to note the last phrases of the poem Supertradmum quotes, “but A, a, a, Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste… Eia, Domine Deus.”

    And to add “The Tutelar of the Place” to the specific recommendations, for such lines as:
    In all times of Gleichschaltung, in the days of the central economies, set up the hedges of illusion round some remnant of us, […]
    against the commissioners
    and assessors bearing the writs of the Ram to square the world-floor and number the tribes and weite down the secret things and take away the diversities by which we are, by which we call on your name, […, and]

    When the technicians manipulate the dead limbs of our culture as though it yet had life, have mercy on us.

  8. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Oops! “write down”!

  9. fsz101 says:

    At Ave Maria University last night there was a reading of “Ash Wednesday” and Karen Laub-Novak’s artwork for each of the stanzas was on display for meditation. There was also commentary on the piece.

    I don’t generally understand a lot of poetry, but something deep down was stirred by this poem, which I assume is a good thing :)

  10. maryh says:

    Beautiful. I’d never heard of the poem before, but I found it and then listened as I read the words.

    I can’t help but think that the Lady in the white gown in second section is Holy Mother Church:
    Because of the goodness of this Lady
    And because of her loveliness, and because
    She honours the Virgin in meditation,
    We shine with brightness.

    But Eliot was an Anglican, not a Catholic. Does that make any sense?

  11. Andkaras says:

    Eliot must have borrowed a couple of thoughts from Shakespeare’s sonnet # XXIX . When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself , and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d , (this is the part-) Desiring this mans art and that mans scope, With what I most enjoy contented least;Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state,Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    Venerator Sti Lot, my real work of my life has been Theology and Literature, which I taught at Bristol many years ago. Ergo, Jones and Eliot are up my alley, so to speak and my two dissertation attempts were on David Jones and Newman. Long history.

    I also gave a talk on Jones with slides to the Society of Christian Artists in London years ago, and as I was working at the Royal College of Art, I got to use their slides.

    I have put many of Jones’ paintings on my website, and I thankfully own some of his stuff, though not the expensive stuff-just prints.

    Thank you Father Z for keeping up the artsy part of this blog. As Catholics, we created the culture and it is our duty to keep it until the final days.

  13. Torpedo1 says:

    Ah, Ash Wednsday. I hadn’t read or even heard the poem since college. I was an English major and so we read Eliot a lot, but it was wonderful to hear it read again, especially by you Fr. Z. Your voice was so soothing I was jared out of my contemplative state by the droaning speech of my screen reader as I moved about the blog once the podcast was finished. Brought back a lot of memories.

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    I heartily second your thanks to Father Z for the regular attention to the arts!

    I once had the pleasure of visiting Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (England) and seeing some of David Jones works ‘in person’! (I see their site has a ‘virtual tour’, but have not tried it, yet.) And I must ‘browse’ your site in more detail for the paintings!

    He is a ‘difficult read’ in many ways – not unlike Eliot! – but I am sure if people relaxedly ‘take the plunge’ and browse a bit (Faber once brought out an Introducing David Jones volume of selections) or nibble away, they will be rewarded. (His essays can also be good place to start.)

  15. eulogos says:

    Will the veiled sister pray/for those who will not go away/but cannot pray?
    And now my question: Is ‘the one veritable transitory power” the intellect?

    I love “the word without a word,”

    But “around the word the ..something(unstilled?)…world still whirled” reminds me to much of the thing about
    “whirled peas” =world peace.

    Where shall the word resound?
    Not here ,there is not enough silence.

    Susan Peterson

  16. eulogos says:

    Andkaras-I memorized that one when I was 15. I can still visualize the spot under the high school stairs where I moped and memorized the sonnet. Which shows what a pathetically self absorbed and self important 15 year old I was. I think I had failed a test or missed an entry in string quartet. But at least if one memorizes poetry in the miseries of adolescence, one has something worth keeping afterwards!
    Susan Peterson

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    “O my people, what have I done unto thee.

    Where shall the word be found, where will the word
    Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”

    There was an old black and white Outer Limits episode called, “The Inheritors,” and, like the unwilling participants in that drama, I find that I, too, must, “speak the words that come without my knowing…”

    There will come a time when all the Church has left is Her prayers. It will be a golden age for the Church – a time of reaching and finding, a time of loss and of gain, a time of death and of life. In all of the commentaries about Pope Benedict’s abdication, few have commented on the fact that he knows, he KNOWS that, in the end, all the Church has ever had, will ever have, is its prayers. His prayers. My prayers. Your prayers. Christ’s prayers.

    Every sacrament, every liturgy is a prayer and every prayer is a death – a death to self, a death to deception, a death to pride, a death to sin. In every sacrament we hear the echo of St. John of the Cross saying, “Those whom God loves, he bids come die.” In baptism we die to this life tainted by original Sin; in Holy Communion we share a Death with the one who conquered death (and, oh, are we worthy?); in Confirmation we are strengthened to die for the One who died for us; in matrimony we die for the one who gives up their body to us in a death of two; in confession we die to sin; in Holy Orders we die for the Church and its communion so that others may live and be united in grace.

    It is this simple act that separates the Church in two. Let us not speak of liberals and conservatives; of those who keep the Faith and those who do not. Let us, frankly, admit that for over a century, the Church has been two men: the one who surrenders and the one who holds onto. Let us speak, instead, of the two Churches – the one that prays and the one that preys.

    It is in prayer where a person is tested, is tried. That is why so many want to avoid it, or, rather pretend about it. Real prayer is a moment that touches the Cross. “The Cross, the Cross,” so many pontificate and shout about, but when they must be silent, when they must feel the wood, when they must hear their own groaning, they, if they are honest, come to know that the Cross they told the world about was nothing more than their own carefully constructed method for feeling special. The Cross is brutal; the Cross is bloody. If that blood on the Cross of which you speak is not your own blood, then whose is it? Christ has already shed his. What are you going to do about that? That is the reason the Church is in such dire straits. So few want the blood on their personal Crosses to be their own! “Let us get justice for others,” is so often just a veiled threat to pin someone else to your Cross. You have no sense of motherhood, so you lust after the blood of babies – oh, you call it seeking reproductive rights, but it is just another way of sacrificing an Innocent so you won’t have to sacrifice yourself…and, so , they take up your Cross and die in your place, over and over, again.

    It is interesting, is it not, that Christ said, “Pick up your Cross, daily, and follow me.” He did not say, “Walk where I have walked,” as if he were done with it. He said, “Follow me” – present tense. Christ can no longer bleed, but he can still walk among men – but his steps only become visible if you follow behind him and make them so. The world can no longer see His blood, but they can see yours. When the time comes, will it be your blood on your Cross or will Christ have to be crucified in your place, again?

    How shall you know where to walk? How shall you follow Christ? That is the first prayer and the last prayer. It is the question asked in every Sacrament. How shall you follow Christ? Every sacrament is a death and every death makes a life visible. Will it be yours? Will it be Christ’s?

    In the prayer of the Church the Church finds its way. In the prayer of the Church, the world finds Christ. Oh, there are many who are afraid of that prayer.

    Many are the men who are method actors in prayer, hamming it up with this way or that way, with this new technique or that. It is often easy to see when a man’s prayer does not carry himself to God – simply annoy him and see if he demand silence for his, “performance.”

    There are those who have not truly distinguished between quiet and silence. Sound occurs when two discordant things rub together. Quiet is a lessening of the noise while the discord remains. Silence is the passage of one thing into another with no discord, no disorder, no disjunction. It is a meeting of perfect friendship. In prayer, God and you meet and if there is silence, then you have come to a perfect friendship. Most can only count on quiet in prayer in this life, not silence, but this is the most sensitive test of your intentions – that you are willing to follow the quiet in hopes that it will become silence, one day.

    One can speak of the Council of the Fathers and the Council of the Media at Vatican II, but really, aren’t these just two different names for the one group that wanted to pray and the other group that wanted to prey – for the group that wanted to hear the chant of silence and the group that wanted to silence the chant?

    If Pope Benedict is showing us anything in his last act as Pope, is it not that we must become authentic? We must be willing to look God in the face, day by day, and see ourselves in His Truth? Too many people think they know God, but just let God look your way and you are put to confusion. That confusion is the beginning of wisdom for that confusion is the beginning of the fear of God…and there it is…the Two Men that the Church has become: the one who knows the fear of the Lord and the one who knows the Lord of Fear.

    In the end, the Church will not become the shining beacon the Prayerful Men at Vatican II hoped for until all the games, the striving, the acting of the Preyerful Men are burned away and only one truth remains – that only and always, there is the prayer.

    Eliot was only partially right. There is not enough silence in the world – but, dare I say it, there could be. There could be if only enough were willing to pay their blood for it; if only enough were willing to be silent for it; if only there were enough who would wait for it in prayer.

    The whole goal of Lent is to stand before the Silence in perfect friendship so that the world, no longer distracted by the noise of YOU, can hear the faint echoes of Heaven in your prayer with God and be converted.

    Well, sorry for the noise.

    The Chicken

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  19. St. Epaphras says:

    Dear Chicken, NOT noise. Thank you. I saved what you wrote.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    A little sort of footnote to The Masked Chicken’s comment:

    “Living first in the silence after the viaticum” came to mind from Eliot’s “Animula” (a poem very much about prayer, and good (Lenten re-)reading).

    I was also reminded of much in Murder in the Cathedral, also a worthwhile work for (re-) reading and/or listening (there is a good, old Caedmon audio version with Paul Scofield as Thomas a Becket).

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