O weariness of men who turn from GOD
To the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action,
To arts and inventions and daring enterprises,
To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited,
Binding the earth and the water to your service,
Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,
Dividing the stars into common and preferred,
Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,
Engaged in working out a rational morality,
Engaged in printing as many books as possible,
Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,
Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm
For nation or race or what you call humanity;
Though you forget the way to the Temple,
There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.1
With these lines, Eliot tackles a question hanging in the background of our consciousness: What is a good life? It’s a big question. For most people, I daresay it feels too big to think through completely. That’s not to say that we don’t answer it, but rather that our answers are often picked up from the culture around us, rather than thought through on our own. While we will not be able to provide the complete explanation for what a good life is, thanks to Eliot we can identify some of the facets and questions that ought to play into our answers.
Our exploration begins with Eliot’s statement “Life you may evade, but Death you shall not”. On face value, the first thing we notice is that Eliot must use “life” to refer to something other than mere existence. Eliot gives us a clue to Life’s identity in the preceding lines: “Though you forget the way to the Temple, / There is one who remembers the way to your door.” Between these three lines, Eliot sets up a bit of parallelism. Death is obviously the one who remembers the way to your door, which means that evading life is another way to describe forgetting the way to the Temple. Forgetting the way to the Temple, though, is not a case of being terrible with directions. Rather, it is a parallel to the opening indictment: “O weariness of men who turn from GOD.”
This identification of God with life should bring us back to Scripture. Specifically, among other references, Christ’s words seem rather appropriate: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).2 Lest we think this is merely a once off statement, it is worth noting that this is not the first time that Christ has referred to himself as the life. He uses a similar phrasing when he tells Martha that, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
Fascinatingly, Eliot describes our turn from life as a turning towards the things we use to illustrate our lives. In a disheartening twist, the activities where we would outwork our life now become holding places for the approach of death. Again, this is not a message that is obscured in Scripture. Rather, we can see it at work in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve decide to go their own way, they fall under the pale of death. Coming back to Christ, we are also reminded that, “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25). Clearly, life does not consist of the things we do. It is possible to turn to action as a way to avoid real life.
In our quest to discover what goes into the good life, then, we’ve discovered that it helps to first ask, “What is life?” Eliot (and more importantly, Scripture) indicates that life exists outside of us. Because of this, it is something we can either embrace or avoid. Our actions, however good and helpful to others, will not constitute life. This does not give us a pass from daring enterprises or devising the perfect refrigerator. Rather, it helps us to put all these actions in perspective. They are a means for us to focus back on Christ, the true source of life. Indeed, one might say that they are a means to worship him. And, as we truly worship him through our daily activities, we just might find that the good life we have been striving to live isn’t as far off as we might have thought.
Have you thought about what it means to live a good life?
How does your answer agree or differ from these thoughts?
2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001. by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Nicolai Bernsten