Some Thoughts on Ash Wednesday and Transformation
From Scott Gerschwer, Ph.D., Compart NA Marketing
The philosopher Ricard Rorty, upon discovering that he had cancer, was asked if he had any regrets. He replied that he wished he had made more friends and read more poetry. Having some verse in your memory was one great way to enrich your life. So, this being Ash Wednesday, a holiday about transformation, I offer this meditation and these lines from the poem "Ash Wednesday" by T.S. Eliot, to help enrich your life:
"Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?"
T.S. Eliot "Ash Wednesday"
Few things in this universe rival the desire for transformation: the movement from one form - in mind, body or spirit - to another. Ancient people must have looked at the transformation of the world we live in, the changing flora and fauna, the caterpillar to the butterfly, the seasons transforming the landscape, and have been profoundly moved.
Transformation is the key to understanding today, February 14, 2018; as you walk the streets of NYC or Boston, or Rome or Stuttgart or London or Paris, you will see people with a cross of ashes dabbed across their forehead. Ash Wednesday initiates the Lenten season of reflection and penitence, which precedes Easter. Ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with the sign of the cross. It is a reminder that from ashes we came and to ashes we will return.
Lent commemorates the 40-day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). But like so many other modern holidays, the roots go back much further in time. The number 40 had some kind of special meaning to the ancient mind. The Mesopotamian god Ea in Akkadian and Babylonian religion (or Enki in Sumeria) was often referred to with the number 40, his sacred number. The number 40 is mentioned numerous times in Jewish tradition: the rain that caused the Flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights; the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.
In Hindu thought, the number 40 comes up in the stanzas of prayers and in the days of fasting before one can enter certain temples. In Islam, The Prophet was 40 when he had his first revelation and he prayed and fasted for 40 days and nights. Oddly, the significance of the number 40 may simply come from it being more than a month. In a sense, 40 appears to be the number of choice because it means (something like "umpteenth") a significantly large but not very specific number. As in: "How long did it rain?" "Ugh, like 40 days."
Whatever its' origins, the number is clearly related to transformation: the transformation of the Earth from dry to flooded, the transformation of a soul (in some traditions, it takes a soul 40 days to ascend to heaven after death). The ashes signify the acceptance of this transformation.
The T.S. Eliot poem that I quote above is very much about transformation. It is cyclical in its form, moving from a sense of despair to a vision of one's sin, to a vision of something heavenly and eternal, back to a sense of this world and its sensual struggles.
"Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again"
The poem expresses a struggle between time and the eternal, between faith and science, and between self-sufficiency and surrender. For T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday is the door that leads to the long dark corridor of Lent, an extended period of darkness that houses transformation. It is the darkness before the coming sacrifice, resurrection, and salvation. Eliot's narrator trusts that spring is coming, but the transformations of the seasons and time and spirit are dangerous challenges.
"Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things"
From this hallway he ascends a spiral staircase and when he looks back he sees himself struggling and then the demons he struggles against and then on the third stair looks out a window and sees a beautiful young woman playing a flute. He struggles to regain his concentration before continuing up the stairs. She might be - he doesn’t say - Mother Mary.
The repetitions of the words and phrases are prayer-like. The rhetorical term is anaphora: the repetition of a word of phrase at the beginning of a paragraph or passage. Eliot uses anaphora to create a driving rhythm like the drumbeat of change itself, to heighten emotion, add emphasis and make the passage more memorable.
Transformation is not easy: Eliot uses anaphora to signify the false starts, the lapses, the repeated attempts…the poem ends with a fair amount of ambiguity: did he succeed in his transformation?
Transformation is an important part of our spiritual lives, our corporeal lives and our business lives. It’s said that the only constant in business is change. Books have been written about how to cope with constant change, mergers and acquisitions, profits and loss.
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