I had a sense of this years before being exposed to the Catholic practices of Lent and Easter. While an English major studying modernist writers, I encountered T.S. Eliot. Our amazing professor decided to lead us in an in depth study of Eliot's The Waste Land. We studied this single poem for several weeks. We went line-by-line and traced back his many literary allusions to attempt to find the meaning of this poem. The entire class was mesmerized, but I became particularly obsessed by the beauty Eliot presented.
When Eliot's poetry is first presented in high school, it is so easy to see only the ugliness of life he presents. And certainly there is much of that in The Waste Land. He, after all, is presenting a dry, lifeless waste land. It begins with the voices of the dead saying they prefer winter ("Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow). It mocks the frailty of those thought to be in touch with the divine ("Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,/Had a bad cold, nevertheless/Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe.") It describes the crowds of London as if they are in Dante's circles of Hell. This is not happy stuff. But after depicting a dry, desolate waste land full of death, false voices and loveless sex, there is hope at the end. Perhaps there is only rock and no water. Or perhaps there is water--the promise of life. Perhaps there is a spring of water. "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" Christ has returned and now "the grass is singing/over the tumbled graves."
The joy shown in the last section of The Waste Land can only be felt by seeing the ugliness of all that precedes it. That helps me to understand the importance of Lent. Having a period of solemnness in which we reflect upon our sinfulness allows us to rejoice all the more in the power of Christ's victory over death.
The first time I went to Easter Vigil (the Mass held on Saturday night that ushers in Easter) I went to the Dominican House of Studies near the Catholic University of America in D.C. One could not find a more beautiful and appropriate setting than this medieval-esque chapel to experience Easter Vigil. Following a bonfire at which the Easter Candle is lit, Easter Vigil begins in darkness. In that darkness, there are numerous readings from the Old Testament that explain the Covenant with Israel and foretell the coming salvation. Then the Gloria is sung. The lights come on and you are surrounded by Easter lilies and the beauty of Easter. This is even more pronounced at the Dominican House of Studies, where the friars removed their black cloaks worn during winter to reveal the white Dominican garb. Easter has arrived and there is life where there was once death.
I've made it a tradition to read The Waste Land on Holy Saturday since college. We have a busy day planned, but I do hope to have a quiet period of time in which to read it today. We've been distracted this Lent. My husband's work has kept him particularly busy. We've dealt with a broken finger and surgery. We have a new baby. Life has been busy and we haven't focused on Lent as we should. I fear that will impact our Easter. But there is hope. Meg woke up this morning and said, "Tomorrow is Easter. I am so excited. There will be pretty music. The purple cloth will come off the statues and we can say Alleluia as much as we want."