The Tongues Declare

Today is the day the world celebrates as Pentecost. Though we Quakers have a mild taboo against celebrating particular days, I do often celebrate them, privately, because all the direction and structure of my life is acknowledged in these particular days, and I am affirmed through celebrating a shared knowledge and purpose with those of the past. “Hello Peter; hello David; we are just some centuries apart, but our inward life, our knowledge and love of God, is the same.”

There have been and are others who like me have known life’s fulfillment through having been given to know the Inward Christ, have sought to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, and are committed to proclaiming the Kingdom. Some, like Peter and David, were also given words and tasks that we who follow in time can rally around and rejoice in, for they come from the pure human heart that knows its Creator’s greatest gift, the Presence of His Son, Christ Jesus.

I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved; Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope; Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance (Acts 2:25-28).

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The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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2 Responses to The Tongues Declare

  1. Jeff Hunter says:

    Excellent article. Eliot’s Four Quartets is an extraordinary poem. In every line there are levels upon levels of meaning. Here for example Pentecost is compared with the Blitz and the fiery suicidal death of the Greek Herakles among many.other things. Not unlike the ways early Friends used Scripture as spiritual metaphors for the human/Divine encounter. Unfortunately Eliot’s references can be arcane and dont draw on a coomon language already familiar to readers (as in the time of Fox). Modern Friends, often unfamiliar with Scripture have no idea what Fox is writing about (even if they take the time to read his writings) because they cannot catch the density of references which made them so affecting. Most modern people are not soaked in Scripture or it is unfamiliar or. deemed irrelevant or even malignant. What is the solution? Certainly a new common language needs to be found or as in.reading Eliot we need assistance to unpack.the words.


  2. Hi Jeff. Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t known about the references in this poem to Herakles or the Blitz. That brought up an interesting idea about different ways of knowing. Learning these two references made the poem more intellectually complex and amazing, but knowledge of them did not affect the poem’s deeper meaning: the burning difficulty and mutual exclusivity of each the worldly and the spiritual life.

    Had I had only an intellectual knowledge of Pentecost (as I have only an intellectual knowledge of the Greek myth and Britain’s battle), reading the poem would simply have been an exercise in intellect rather than what it was: a life-affirming exposure to wisdom and beauty. For example, it is the inward experience of the coming of the heavenly prophet of peace that gives an almost physical exhilaration to the words “the dove descending.” I recall Fox’s statement that it is the Spirit and light of Jesus that allows one to read the Scriptures with profit and great delight (Nickalls, 32). This light, Fox is saying, is the preliminary necessity for understanding. Such understanding doesn’t come from familiarity with intellectual allusions but from familiarity with “the unfamiliar Name.”

    For this reason, I do not think a new language would help at all. A language that would suit the standards set by today’s Quakers would have no more power and sound no different from the language we already hear in our meetings’ weekly messages.

    The language of the saints, prophets, and poets who have given us so much is still available to us. We must, however, enter into the Life they knew. Then we, too, will be consumed by fire, and given the words to add to their line.


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