I commissioned an artist to calligraphy that passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” in college for my theology professor and thesis director, Keith Egan, because it was his favorite quote. I memorized the quote. I would repeat it on my long walks around the picturesque campus, in line at the dining hall, as I studied in the library. It took on a life within me.
But I never understood it.
I think it has something to do with stopping during the day, with consistent prayer and meditation, and with trusting in a God that you can’t see and often cannot feel. Perhaps it means to allow your soul to catch up with your body and mind, like the tale author Macrina Wiederkehr tells in her book “Seven Sacred Pauses”:
[There was a] story about some westerners who hired a few bushmen guides to help them travel through the Kalahari Desert. Not being used to moving at the pace their employers were expecting, the bushmen suddenly sat down to rest, and no amount of persuasion could induce them to continue the journey until they were ready. The reason for this much needed rest, the bushmen explained, was that they had to wait for their souls to catch up….The bushman of the Kalahari called this ancient knowing “the tapping of the heart.”
I’m sure that T.S. Eliot didn’t consider a psychiatric treatment plan when he wrote the words “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought,” but that is exactly what many doctors and therapists said to me the first two and half years of my recovery from my nervous breakdown. For months, I wanted nothing more than to survive one day at a time: to dress and feed the kids, get them to school and soccer practice, and to use whatever energy and concentration I had left on writing a decent blog post. My primary goal was to keep myself from relapsing and returning to the occupational-therapy room of Laurel Hospital to paint birdhouses with a few new friends. My therapist and doctor were wise to advise me not to dig any deeper into my psyche than I needed to because I was still too fragile.
But as I erect important boundaries in my life and devote the needed time to meditation and prayer, I’ve reached a firmer ground where I can explore those thoughts that Eliot is talking about: the fears that keep me trapped in dysfunctional behavior, the messages from my childhood that are simply incorrect and harmful to my intimate relationships, and the thinking patterns that need some major adjustments.
Eliot is absolutely right. The stillness needed to come first: the stopping, and breathing, and listening. The undoing. Then hope: the hard job of replacing the old tapes with newer, optimistic ones and aspiring for a life that is more manageable, less distracted and scattered. And then faith. Believing in a God that can deliver me to solid earth where I can begin to think, consider, cry, and heal. And ultimately, to dance.