“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”
—from “Burnt Norton” in The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
I’ve puzzled over this poem many times, but especially this month. I understand the relationship between the past and present as both contributing to the future, as well as the idea that the future is always rooted in the past. What I think Eliot is getting at with the word unredeemable is that time cannot be claimed, despite our valiant efforts. Time isn’t just “always” (the limits of our comprehension) but the “eternal always” (beyond our comprehension). It slips by as we age. It shapes character as we live. It opens and closes chapters of experience despite our wishes. It cannot be claimed. In the primary inspiration for the poem, The Bhagavad-Gita, “life understood in its most developed state lies beyond the reach of time,” says critic Terry Bruntone. Without understanding time the world is lived, at best, fearfully — or as Eliot would have it, “fear in a handful of dust.”
This is certainly a moment for me where past, present, and future converge. I am cherishing this month, as I say goodbye to San Antonio, for the richness it has brought, especially the gratitude that people have expressed. For some reason, such gratitude can be difficult to share so openly outside of times of leave-taking. It is also a time of grief for I’m about to lose a community, in the way that I have “had” it for the past several years. I’m trying to get my mind around what it means to say goodbye to 500 people who have made such an impact on my life, the dozens of community leaders with whom
I’ve worked, a squadron of pilots for whom I’ve chaplained, and a city of which I’ve become so fond. I truly don’t know how to do it, and so I just do — holding this present moment, the past, and my hopes for the future all in one
arm’s grasp of the “eternal now.” It’s like the Eternal has said, “this whole mountain is yours, but only what you can carry in your hands.” I will do my best.