Why T.S. Eliot Loved St. John of the Cross
Biographer Lyndall Gordon has discovered that the poet T.S. Eliot was interested in the writings of mystics from his undergraduate days at Harvard. Brought up in a puritanical Unitarian household in St. Louis, the young American was drawn to the lives and writings of Catholic mystics.
In 1927 he was baptized and received into the Anglican Church and for the rest of his life, until his death in 1965 he practiced his Christian faith within the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He said once about his beliefs, “In politics I am a royalist, in religion a Catholic.”
Although he was never received into the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church, his life and spirituality were deeply contemplative, deeply Catholic and deeply mystical. Once Eliot’s Portuguese cleaning lady was asked what he was like. She didn’t know he was a world famous poet and Nobel laureate. She said, “Oh, him! He’s the holy one!”
After his disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haigh Wood broke down in 1933, Eliot lived a solitary and celibate life until his happy marriage to Valerie Fletcher. Despite his fame, during those years, he lived an austere life of penance, and was much influenced by St. John of the Cross.
Through his personal sufferings Eliot embraced his cross and never complained. Here is a tribute and allusion to John of the Cross from Eliot’s East Coker:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.