Teach Us to Care and Not to Care

Hearkening back to last week’s Lenten kick-off is this portion of T.S. Eliot’s 1927 poem “Ash Wednesday”, his first poem written after his conversion. The poem depicts the protracted collapse from busy unbelief to the first, exhausted possibility of hope, a hope which yearns to shake off completely that former busy-ness and find rest. It reaches its climax with these lines:

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

Isn’t this “us” he’s describing more than a generic pronoun? Isn’t he describing all of us caught up in the modernist cataclysm? His intercession is a genuine plea for a genuine group he belongs to, even as a Christian. We care both too much and too little; our apathy is directly proportional to our mass media devotion. We need both a seriousness and a playfulness which our culture cannot teach us; a seriousness borne out of reverence for the reality of God and a playfulness that both relishes redemption and satirizes the world’s absurdity. Helmut Thielicke describes this very thing in terms of dying to the world and subsequently living in and for the world:

What we have here then, in the alleged name of Christian freedom and our opening up to the world, is in fact a reduction of secular reality. Whereas Paul speaks of “having as though we had not,” the negative statement now holds good that the world does not have me. I have escaped its grasp. On the other hand, I do not have it; at any rate I do not have it if having means not merely a partial contact with its functions but the deep commitment of love…

Our relation to it [the world], then, is one of both seriousness and play. It is a “having as though we had not.” Between the penultimate and us stands dying and rising again with Christ. [1]

Lord, instill in us a holy disregard for the falsehoods posing and preening as significant: what your first high school crush had for breakfast this morning, Shia LaBeouf’s red carpet tantrums and mock-humble art exhibits, Kim Kardashian’s new look, Princess Kate’s baby bump, which is better: American Idol or The Voice, who anyone in One Direction is dating currently, Rush Limbaugh’s stance on anything… A universe doesn’t exist in which any of this matters, and yet it consistenly fills our thoughts. Fill us with a sanctified indifference and redirect our misplaced loves. Wean us from these preoccupations and grant us a quietude which resists the frenetic pace our gadgets and commercials yank us along: “Teach us to sit still/Even among these rocks/Our peace in His will.”

But all the same, Lord, protect us from a Gnosticism which goes too far and embraces only utilitarian function to the exclusion of good, beautiful, hilarious things the world may overlook and misguided zealots may dismiss; protect us from worshiping them and teach us how to use them properly. Instill in us a deep love for movies, and paintings, and old, worn bike trails, and funny politician faux-pas, and kitschy pop songs, and fox hats, and a million other good things you’ve given us to enjoy.

[1] Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (3 volumes, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), I: 359, 363

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