I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” III

Confusion was my friends’ first reaction when I read them this poem. (It’s an excerpt, really, from one of Eliot’s last.) But I figured they might feel that way. Lots of people find poetry as a whole to be difficult or boring because it requires so much more rumination than most other forms of language. And since the early 20th century, the extra time and thought required for poetry seems to have escalated beyond what many people are willing (or able) to give.

It’s probably pretense, but I love poetry like this; the more obscure, the better. Poetry allows me to hear and say and think what and how I can’t in more direct forms of speech. And even beyond literary expression, this power of poetry to “tell it slant” also reorients my imagination to the workings of God in my life, which always lie on the periphery of my understanding.

In this sense, the poetry functions as a lens for seeing the world sideways and upside down. But to look through the poem in the first place may require its own inverted thinking. Eliot’s poem is a good example. I find it difficult to read because it embraces paradox and negation. How should I imagine “darkness on darkness”? And if I say “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing,” aren’t I just contradicting myself?

These lines make more sense to me in light of the theological tradition called apophasis, or, in Latin, the via negativa, “the negative way.” It’s a way of talking about God that begins by believing I can’t talk about God perfectly. Human language and thought are too finite to completely describe the uncreated creator, the one whose ways are higher than my ways and whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Is 55:9). Instead of speaking, then, I un-speak: I talk about what God is not. I strip away human ideas of God to contemplate God more truly. Hence the paradox—the darkness of the human mind without simplistic notions allows me to better perceive the God who is light (1 Jn 1:5).

Maybe this mystical theology is no less obscure (“dark”) to some readers than Eliot’s own poem. Perhaps it seems ostentatious or pointless. In any case, who wants to know that he doesn’t know anything about God? How can unknowing God sustain our daily spiritual lives? To be sure, negative theology isn’t useful in many circumstances; sometimes it’s a distraction. But as much as apophasis may seem to shut down certain ways of thinking, it opens up many more.

Recently, I’ve been reading Law & Gospel, a concise introduction to Mockingbird’s animating spirit. In one of the book’s most frustrating bits, the writers claim,

Knowledge relates to and empowers the self, which helps the self solve the everyday problems and hurdles it faces. But when the problem is the self, help must come from outside: must be News that we cannot manipulate (because we would botch it), but is objectively true.

This segment frustrates me because it’s true. I frustrate myself and all my best intentions; I get in my own way (Rm 7:24). All my efforts toward perfection, all my trying, only misfire. Hence the need for “News,” for Good News. And this good news inspires hope among sinners. Yet Eliot hesitates to hope:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

What might be “the wrong thing” to hope for? How in the world could I “botch” hope? Eliot follows a pervasive biblical pattern: as much as scripture is full of ritual commandments, it continually demands a more intense obedience than even its own rules require. “The sacrifice acceptable to God” is not primarily the Law’s many animal offerings but “a broken spirit” (Ps 51:17); God commands circumcision but declares his greater goal to “circumcise your heart” (Dt 30:6). That is, God doesn’t want a divided creature, a show of obedience concealing an interior selfishness. He wants my whole self. Hence, the chief command isn’t a ritual; it’s absolute love (Mt 22:34-40), as God is himself love (1 Jn 4:8).

But Eliot carries scripture’s intensification of itself a step further. Perhaps as the Pharisees exalted biblical ceremony, I expect “hope,” “love,” and “faith” (1 Cor 13:13) to be praiseworthy endeavors. But in the poem, even these highest of virtues turn out to be human labors, religious manners, not the work of God—and therefore prone to misdirection. In my hands, “hope” and “love” turn out to be works of human righteousness; “the wrong thing” their final result. If even my greatest spiritual efforts are insufficient, what then am I to do?

In my experience, the greatest gift of apophatic thinking is the way it counters any breed of Pelagianism. It teaches me to undermine my spiritual smugness.

But it doesn’t just chasten. It affirms. It welcomes my humanity: uncertainties, insufficiencies, and all. It keeps me alive to the mystery of our faith (1 Tim 3:16), so that in answer to the question, “What then am I to do?” I respond, “Nothing to be done.” I don’t mean nihilism. Negation invites me to wait — with the whole of creation (Rm 8) for what we will be (1 Jn 3). Then, today and every day, I can say with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1).

Here, I think, the negation become most tangible. How do I spend my days and hours and minutes and seconds—watching the scenes change, between train stops, coming back to consciousness. I am waiting, but waiting in via, so that as “the stillness [shall be] the dancing,” my waiting is walking with the one who is himself the way (Jn 14:6).