The Spiritual Desert (and the Well at it’s heart)

In Eliot’s secret heart something deep and true happened. In his quest for certainty, he walked into the great desert. This is the same desert any of us will encounter if we look for the purpose and meaning of our lives. And out there, something happened.

Those of us who have thrown our lives into the spiritual enterprise, the way of deep consideration, of truly looking, whatever school to which we adhere, whether we are Unitarian or Anglican, Christian or Jew or Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, rationalist or pagan, we find ourselves stepping out into the desert, into the unknown country. And there, whatever we thought, however we were led into that place, we lose the certain and instead move into a subtle and vast not knowing, of opening our minds and vastly more important, of opening our hearts. Here we find that famous well with its life giving waters. And Eliot, twisted though his heart might have been, and in that good news for the rest of us, with our own wounds and twists, seems to truly have encountered that ground, or, maybe it is a well, what some would call God. His later poems do appear to bear witness to that moment. And, in such as the “Four Quartets,” he points the way for all of us who are looking for the heart of love, to find the well at the center of the desert.

Here I find myself thinking of that closing part of “Little Gidding,” the culmination of his “Four Quartets,” for me the most sublime of all his work. And of that poem, one phrase in particular, “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well.” Eliot is, of course, not the author of that phrase. He lifted it from Dame Julian of Norwich. All good poets are in part thieves of the heart, as this way has no originality within it, we all belong to it, we are all owned by it, we all take our every breath from it.

This is the well that Eliot found, and the well, we too, can find, and we too can drink from.

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. 

Through the unknown, unremembered gate 

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning; 

At the source of the longest river 

The voice of the hidden waterfall 

And the children in the apple-tree 

Not known, because not looked for 

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness 

Between two waves of the sea. 

Quick now, here, now, always— 

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.

This is a text excerpt from a written sermon by James Ford, Unitarian minister

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