Stirring Dull Roots

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

These opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land take me aback with their haunting beauty and incongruity. Who would have thought of April as cruel? And then for this remark to be followed by such exuberant images of life! The effect is dizzying.

Consider the verbs that end the first three lines: breeding, mixing, stirring—stirring, mixing, breeding.

Just saying them over sounds like the dance of life itself, especially when one considers what is being bred, mixed, stirred. Lilacs are bred out of the dead land, a miracle of generation and beauty. Memory is mixed with desire, as we think of what spring has meant in past years, of the adventures and pleasures we have found when able to venture out after a hard winter, and the blood runs warm again, anxious for more life. And dull roots are stirred by spring rains, so that everywhere the white, bare, leafless land-scape begins to grow again, leafing out in green, the color of hope. These are wonderful images of what it means to shake off the cares and carefulness of winter and to stretch out toward all the abundance and exuberance and adventure that life offers.

Why should this be cruel? And for whom? For me?

Consider the next three lines:

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Here the images are ascetic rather than exuberant, and the verbs suggest dependency rather than freedom. Covering and feeding are things we do when we care for infants or patients, not things to which we give prominence in the fullness of life. These verbs intimate protection and security rather than adventure and daring.

Do I dare? Do I dare?

There is in me, and I suspect in each of us, something that craves security, that clings to what is familiar even when it is worn or useless, or when just a little life is fed with dried tubers. Sometimes instead of "forgetful snow" it is a warm comforter on a cold morning. Sometimes it is habits and hang-ups. Sometimes it is gated communities and armed guards. Slogans and propaganda make up a forgetful snow that keeps us from facing up to the warm humanity of those who are communists or terrorists or tyrants or bums—and a whole grab bag of "others" who "understand nothing but force." Don’t we all have fears of what the dead land may breed, and whether the fresh green sprigs may be the first shoots of a tyrant or a terrorist? Versions and variations abound.

Think how the words of George Fox watered dull roots in the 17th century— and how much more the message of Jesus was like spring rains to Aramaic roots in a Palestine parched from stale religion and occupying armies. Jesus preached a message of courage and hope based on love and equality. It remained true that the Romans had the weapons and the temples had the shekels, but these instruments of power and domination are not sources of true strength. Indeed, possessing such outward power interferes with true strength, which derives from humility and a loving fellowship in which each of us is a child of God and possesses the Inward Light of the eternal Spirit. I have on many occasions experienced how attention to that Inward Light in myself and those around me can lead to a sense of personal strength and unity with others who are similarly strengthened. I am sure you have had such experiences, too. It is our own experience of the Light that enables us to understand the awesome strength of Jesus and George Fox and their messages.

George Fox confronted, without anger or violence, the worldly powers of his day, and we in our day have seen analogous confrontations in the lives of Leo Tolstoy (excommunicated), Mohandas Gandhi (assassinated), and Martin Luther King Jr. (assassinated), as well as in Quaker conscientious objection and civil disobedience. In each such confrontation the response of the powers of the day has incorporated violence and anger. Even poor Tom Daschle, though he is hardly in the same league as the others, was pilloried for uttering the obvious: that going to war against Iraq marked the failure of George W. Bush’s diplomacy. Comfort-able in forgetful snow, the powers and princes of the world, as well as the rich and comfortable, crush what still-hidden roots and spirits breed from the land that violence and deceit have deadened. The crucifixion is the culmination of the gospel story, the most agonizing moment in the Bible. It symbolizes the daily reality of political, economic, and social life, where domination and suppression as well as death are the price of wealth and power. We see the crucifixion reenacted over and over, and the reminder of it during Passion Week is at the heart of a Christ-centered understanding of the human world.

The opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem present the theme of this worldly waste land. The crucifixion implements the waste land, or serves as its symbol. It is both omnipotent and impotent. It is omnipotent in that no material thing can resist its lethal force. It is impotent in that it never succeeds in killing the Spirit that is its real enemy, for the resurrection is as constantly and persistently reenacted as the crucifixion. Warm spring rains do revive dull roots and the lilacs do bloom—again and again. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. live on, Leo Tolstoy is revered, and George Fox tells us that the crucified Christ lives on in the bosom of each of us, to teach his people himself. We ourselves are the vessels of resurrection, the instruments through which the risen Christ constantly reappears in human affairs. Let us, then, amidst our tears, take heart and rejoice and rise up, for resurrection reminds us, as George Fox wrote in September 1663 (Epistle 227), that "the Lord is at work, even in this thick night of darkness that may be felt."
This text is based on a message spoken on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2003.

Newton Garver

Newton Garver, a member of Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting, is emeritus professor of Philosophy at SUNY/Buffalo. He is actively engaged in enhancing relations with Bolivian Quakers through the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund.