Opening Reading: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make out visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’}
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
(They will say, ‘But how his legs and arms are thin!’)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse
For I have known them all already, known them all –
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all –
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume
And how should I begin?
. . . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . . .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ –
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.’
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
And this, and so much more? –
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’
. . . . . .
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The title of the poem is ironic, but not misleading. It is a love poem, in that it is a poem about love. Love is about making meaningful connections, or failing to make them; love is about communication, or the realization that one has failed to communicate; love is about that nagging sense of separateness with which we live-and the fear that we will fail to overcome that sense of separateness.
Love promises to provide connection through communication: Prufrock is love’s anti-hero.
Eliot introduces the poem with a passage in Italian from Dante’s Inferno, suggesting that the speaker, Prufrock, is one of the damned ‘and that he speaks only because he is sure no one will listen.’
S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
(“If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.”)
He invites the listener to go somewhere: ‘let us go then, you and I.’ It’s an invitation to take the journey inward, an invitation to introspection. It’s as if he’s sitting on Dr. Freud’s famous couch. ‘Let me tell you about my innermost thoughts, my doubts and fears. Let me tell you about my problems.’
Prufrock’s ‘love song’ is a lament. But it’s not about the loss of love, it ‘s about the underlying fear and anxiety that love is impossible, at least for him.
“In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” he says.
Why Michelangelo? Because he was extremely creative, productive, interesting, while Prufrock dismisses himself as someone without creativity or productivity, completely uninteresting and perhaps impotent in the face of women ‘who come and go,’ and say, “That’s not it, that’s not what I meant, at all.”
What’s the room in which ‘they come and go?’ We might picture a museum room, or a cocktail party with surface conversations.
Perhaps, thought, room is Prufrock himself–his inner life. Perhaps the room is a metaphor for his impotent, invisible self; women who have convinced him of the futility of communication, of love.
Eliot was 25 years old (or younger) when he penned this piece. It’s the poem that put him on the poetry radar screen.
After earning two degrees from Harvard he went to France and studied at the Sorbonne. He was fascinated by his poetry teacher, Laforgue, from whom he learned about the ‘poetry of alienation.’ Laforgue wrote: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of the masters of the Sienne school”
Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Thomas Stearns Eliot was raised in a prominent Unitarian family: his grandfather was a Unitarian minister who founded the Unitarian church in St. Louis, Missouri. When he was in his 40’s, he joined to the Church of England, to his family’s dismay. Adding to their consternation, he took out English citizenship.
Eliot is often quoted from pulpits. The chaplain’s prayer when the body of Ronald Reagan was brought into the rotunda began with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer. They know and do not know, that acting is suffering, that the wheel may turn and still be forever still.”
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (The Rock)
“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.” (East Coker)
Those of us who stand in pulpits struggle with Prufrock’s assertion that ‘it is impossible to say just what I mean.’
We struggle to prepare sermons that we’re afraid won’t be heard, or, worse, may be misunderstood. We experience Dante’s Inferno; but we persist, trying to ‘squeeze the universe into a sermon,’ hoping to roll it down the bowling alley to knock down all the pins of misunderstanding: “Do I dare, and do I dare?”
We know the limits of language but we hope to overcome those limits by developing a sense of mutual respect; by getting to know one another over time. We come to realize that communication isn’t something we do in a one-way direction from pulpit to pew. It’s something we do together-if at all.
Most communication happens in spite of the words, not because of them. Words are like arrows-we find ways to defend ourselves against them. Language is often used to avoid communication. George Orwell called it double-speak.
It’s only when we’ve developed and nurtured relationships characterized by mutual respect that words help to heal the wounds each of us carries.
So we try our best to put the right words together, to say ‘just what I mean.’
As soon as we say the words we try to listen to your responses, nonverbal as well as verbal; affirming as well as the little critiques. Then, if we’re brave, we try again. And again.
Sometimes a sermon is an attempt to ‘squeeze the universe into a ball.’ Indeed, a sermon that is successful is one that somehow gives voice to things that the listener (as well as the speaker) need to have articulated, saying out loud what otherwise might fall into the great abyss: ‘a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’
Sometimes, of course, the ball into which we roll the universe is too big to handle, like an over-sized bowling bowl.
Sometimes a sermon feels just right. On very rare occasions even a home run, to use the baseball analogy.
Most often we settle for a base hit. What’s a good batting average? One out of three is considered very good.
In 1941 Ted Williams hit .401, his best year. He had a career average of .344, which means that two out of three times he failed.
Those of us who throw words from pulpits don’t keep a career average, but we feel good when we sense we’ve had a hit, which brings me to thoughts about some sermons that clicked for me this year.
We started the season in September with a two-part sermon about the evolution of the concept of God in the Bible. That was this year’s favorite for me, personally. It worked for me because it was a step away from the anthropomorphic gods we hear politicians and television preachers talking about, toward a more mature concept of God.
The all-powerful God described in the first chapter of Genesis creates each thing with a word: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” After six days of such ‘work,’ God gets tired, so he takes a rest. We’re introduced to a human-like God who needs a day off. He later gives a commandment to ‘remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.’
In the next chapters in the book o Genesis God is like a Father whose children disobey: the all-powerful, all-knowing God apparently didn’t know they would eat the fruit which he specifically instructed them not to eat, being careful to point it out. God become the angry father who punishes his children by evicting them from the idyllic home he had provided for them, which they obviously didn’t appreciate!
God becomes the clannish, authoritarian deity who gradually moves to a more limited constitutional monarch. After destroying all life on the planet, except for Noah, his family and the pairs of animals Noah takes on the mythological ark, God makes a promise never to wreck such havoc again. He regrets what he’s done, so he makes a covenant with his people and puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself and his people about his promise….Fromm compares the experience of ego-transcendence to the experience of what Tillich calls the “ground of being,” but he seems to forget that the…
…the proof being that the concept of God comes to be treated as unthinkable, “hidden,” “the silent,” “the Nothing…
…Since Fromm is committed to atheism, however, he cannot accept that commandment…
…same expression was used by Schopenhauer to describe the experience of a terrible, demonic, blind will…
…It may be precisely to counteract these dangers that Judaism-though it is certainly sensitive to the claims of humanity-emphasizes the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might…
…Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from the story of the rabbis who would not trust the miracles called down by Rabbi Eliezer is not the one Fromm draws-of man’s freedom from God-but rather that human experience alone cannot be trusted to point the way which humans must follow…
…Q Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc…
…Though he misunderstands mysticism, Fromm is well advised to seek a firm foundation for his radical humanism…
…What, then, is the foundation for ethics, and what is the “Halakhah” that is to be followed…
…He also argues that the Bible is more concerned with the fight against idolatry than with theology, and he interprets idolatry as the worship of a partial selfintelligence, strength, etc.-in the idol…
…So much for mysticism…
God evolves, suggesting that our concept of God should also evolve as we grow toward maturity, as individuals and collectively. As we watch our fellow human beings killing one another in the name of an outmoded god, we’re reminded that we have a long way to go before reaching that evolved place.
The God of Genesis moves through stages to suggest that our personal concept of God moves through stages.
In Exodus, the second book of the Bible, God is introduced to Moses at the burning bush. The God of Exodus evolves into a nameless God–a God of liberation, a God burning with compassion: “the bush was burning but was not consumed.”
In Exodus, the freedom story, God evolves from noun to verb, visible in Nature, described by the poets like John Ciardi in White Heron: “What lifts the heron, leaning on the air, I praise, without a name.cry anything you please, but praise-praise the white original burst of those two soft kissing kites.”
The nameless God of Exodus is described as the presence of human compassion. Moses heard a voice coming from deep within himself-he touched the place of compassion which makes us human; he heard the voice urging him to respond to suffering. The story has God say to him, “I have seen the affliction of my people. I have heard their cry. I know their suffering.” To see, to hear, to know the suffering of others is the presence of God within one’s deepest self. We call the ‘soul,’ without which one lacks the essential ingredient that makes us human.
There’s a story in the Gospel of John that describes Jesus’ response when he hears that his friend Lazarus has died. It says, “Jesus wept.” This is an indication of his compassion, of his deep, human feelings.
That brief, two-word sentence ‘squeezes the human universe into a ball.’ The ball, in this case, is the tear drop rolling down his cheek-the outward expression of compassion, the distillation of Jewish and Christian theology.
“I have seen the affliction of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their suffering.”
That’s a summary of the sermon got the new church year off to a good start: it was a hit.
I invited you to write to me about your evolution-the way your idea of God has grown and matured over the years; the kind of God you’ve experienced. Many of you responded-some made promises, but they have miles to go before they sleep!
Those responses were helpful and reminded me that what we’re going here together is a work in progress.
I don’t have to squeeze the universe into one big ball, to roll it toward the overwhelming questions.
When I first learned the T. S. Eliot poem I thought of a bowling bowl-one of those big bowling bowls with the holes for thumb and two fingers. The ten pins are the overwhelming questions: the questions about God, heaven, hell, evil, soul, resurrection, sin, salvation and so on and on. A professor of preaching in seminary said, “Don’t try to tell them all you know in one sermon, you might just succeed!” So we squeeze the universe into little balls, week after week.
We squeezed a piece of the universe into a ball this winter in the sermon on ‘the good divorce.’ It got a lot of appreciative response. I thought it might be a curve ball, but it went straight into the zone and got a surprisingly enthusiastic response. I said:
“A good divorce, like a good marriage, is characterized by love. Not the same kind of love, but a more mature love; not the passionate flame of love that motivated the marriage, but a deeper love that wants to protect the integrity of the person who had been one’s partner for a time, with whom one shared a portion of life.
“It takes two to make a good marriage, but a bad divorce takes only one person.
“People going through divorce need to be encouraged, by family and friends, to find ways to minimize the damage, and to find ways to make it a good divorce.”
There were a couple of other rough and tumble sermons: one in response to Mel Gibson’s violent film about killing Jesus, and another about the torture at Abu Ghraib.
I surprised myself by finding something positive about Gibson’s cinematic orgy of violence. I appreciated the opening scene of Jesus alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping. I said:
“Gibson’s film was provocative.it motivated me to think about the various ways we humans suffer. I realized that all the ways we suffer are portrayed on the screen either directly or by inference. In other words, The Passion of the Christ is a reflection of our own down-to-earth human suffering.
“To me, Jesus is Everyperson. Christ is our human capacity for compassion-the capacity to suffer with another person, to transcend the usual boundary of our separateness or self-concern, and to feel another’s pain.
“The Existentialists, like Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Camu, say that we suffer because we feel alone in a hostile, indifferent and meaningless universe. We feel a sense of alienation.we feel separate. “When we do form meaningful relationships we suffer from the fear that something bad will happen to those we love, that we’ll be betrayed, or that those we love might disappoint us.or that we will disappoint a loved; we suffer because we sometimes don’t believe that those who express their love really do love us–that their love is conditional, and as soon as we fail them in some way, we’ll be rejected, and then we’ll feel even more alone and alienated than ever.
“We suffer by being falsely accused, or from fear of being falsely accused.”
“Jesus, alone in the Garden, represents each of us. He’s disappointed in his friends who keep falling asleep on him; soon one of them betrays him; then another denies him.
“Christ is alive in us when we feel compassion; when we are able to forgive and to feel forgiven.”
Finally the sermon addressed the anti-Semitism in the film: “Perhaps Mel Gibson did not intend his film to deepen the evil of anti-Semitism. (Like the proverbial gun in the old song.) He didn’t know his film is loaded!”
Finally I’ll mention the sermon on Abu Ghraib, which is still so fresh in our minds.
I did some digging and found out that in Arabic Abu Ghraib means ‘the father of the raven,’ so I used Poe’s famous poem: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, suddenly there came a tapping, tapping at my chamber door.”
Someone who had not been there that Sunday morning but read the sermon on our web site said, “The entire sermon came together for me when you said that those who perpetrated torture on those prisoners may not have been following the orders of the Commander in Chief but they were following his example.”
Then there were times I stood in the pulpit and thought I struck out, but that some people were able to find things they needed to hear, something that spoke to them. I’m often reminded of Emerson’s saying that ‘There is a good ear in some that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment and those foolishly spoken may be wisely heard.’
To paraphrase Eliot: “A genuine sermon can communicate before it is understood.”
Thomas Mann, in his classic, The Magic Mountain, said; “Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact-it is silence which isolates.”
We’ll close with a few lines from Eliot’s poem, Chorus from the Rock:
You have seen the house built. It is now a visible church,
One more light set upon a hill
In a world confused and dark and disturbed by portents of
Be satisfied that you have light
Enough to take your step and find your foothold.
We thank thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary.
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light
and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light.