“Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold” — But Jesus Christ Will Come Again in Glory
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
Almost 100 years ago the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming.” It is a strange, nightmarish poem telling of events both seen and unseen — of an ominous elemental horror that is imminent and one that “slouches” from its centuries-old hibernation toward Bethlehem to be “born.”
The events of the last months — whether they be in London, Rome or Washington, D.C. — appear to be prefigured by this poem.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things appear to be falling apart. Politically, socially, economically — every aspect of our lives, no matter where we live, seems to be under attack, and not just from the blight of COVID-19.
The context of when “The Second Coming” was composed is important. Yeats had just witnessed the First World War, lived through the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-19) and had watched as his native Ireland had moved from open rebellion in 1916 to an ongoing vicious guerrilla war between Irish Republicans and the British authorities. It looked as if a new epoch was being born before the eyes of the poet, and in many ways this proved so.
Today it seems we, too, are living through the birth of another epoch. Each news cycle confirms that our old way of life with its former certainties is slipping away before our eyes.
Born into an Anglo-Irish family, as a young man Yeats jettisoned his Protestant upbringing for more exotic forms of spirituality. The year 1885 was to be a significant one for Yeats: His poetry was published for the first time, in the Dublin University Review; it was then also he began a life-long interest in the occult. Eventually, this interest led Yeats to become a theosophist. By 1890 he had joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years, achieving its coveted sixth grade of membership by 1914 — the same year that his future wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, also joined the Society.
It was only four days after their wedding that Yeats’ bride began what would become a lengthy experiment with the psychic phenomenon called “automatic writing,” when her hand and pen allegedly became mere instruments for entities in the spirit world to impart information.
Yeats claimed he and his wife took part in about 400 such sessions of “automatic writing.” Later, avidly, he studied the nearly 4,000 pages produced by these sessions, and, in so doing, began to formulate theories about life and history. One of the most significant was what he called “gyres” — interpenetrating cones representing mixtures of opposites of both a personal and historical nature. Yeats claimed that within each 2,000-year era, emblematic moments occurred at the midpoints of these “gyres.”
At the start of “The Second Coming” Yeats perceives the world to be at the start of such a midpoint. He speaks of “gyres” widening and turning as if in some violent form of becoming. Yet in this moment the poet perceived no return of a Messiah. Instead, for Yeats 1920 was the moment in history when another portal was opened to reveal, in the distance, coming from a desert-waste, a wholly despair-inducing Spiritus Mundi. This “rough beast,” with its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun … slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” with “its hour come round at last.”
Yesterday and Tomorrow
Mercifully, Christians await another, altogether different Second Coming.
And it is one already anticipated by an institution unlike any other, and one that has seen epochs come and go like no other. For the Catholic Church was present 2,000 years ago when the Roman amphitheatres were welcoming the first Christian martyrs to their deaths; and it is still here today. Of no other institution can that be said.
It is worth recalling that the first of a line of Supreme Pontiffs made their decrees as Romans ruled Britain, and later as Dane and Saxon invaded; and Pontiffs continued to pronounce when Norman rule came centuries after that. The Catholic Church in these isles even stayed the course of Tudor and Stuart reigns, only to re-emerge in the years that followed with a fresh energy.
The much-vaunted longevity of the British monarchy appears but recent when compared to the Church of Rome. In fact, the Papacy predates the existence of England, as it does France, and even more so such modern constructs such as Italy and Germany.
Furthermore, her seeming reverses have worked strangely to her favor. The decline in her numbers in certain periods — such as during the European Reformation — were more than made up for with unexpected conversions in the New World and elsewhere, as all the while such new arrivals breathed fresh life and vitality into her ongoing mission. In history the Church appears as permanent as the landscape, as unmoving as the mountains.
The Church has watched as kings were crowned, empires faded, revolutions and wars gave birth to new polities. Now most of these people or events are long since forgotten, or at best relegated to historic study. In contrast, the Church that crowned these royal heads, or denounced the revolutions that erupted, moves on to that which she seeks — namely, the end of history itself.
Only the other week, in the midst of the pandemic and state-wide restrictions, by chance I visited a Catholic church. It was almost empty save for a priest and two others, one of whom was being received into the Church that day. The reception of souls into the Church was a process that began 2,000 years ago at Pentecost, and one that will persist until the end of time.
Therefore, having witnessed the commencement of all worldly states now existing, doubtless the Church will see their end too, as well as that of the world itself.
In so doing, perhaps more significantly, the Church awaits a Second Coming — one hopeful and more permanent than that which the occult-infatuated Yeats thought he beheld 100 years ago. For this is a Second Coming that does not “slouch towards Bethlehem.” Instead, it is the fulfilment of that which took place there some 2,000 years ago.
It is only then, in that Parousia, when the center shall be definitively bound together as, at last, all things are once more made anew.