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Words Are the Thing: The Sacramentality of Language

Thomas Howard, the author of Dove Descending: A Journey Into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, was a notable writer, English professor, and early C.S. Lewis scholar. Brother to the well-known missionary Elizabeth Eliot, he became a Catholic convert, chronicling his spiritual journey in his book, Evangelical Is Not Enough. Lewis’s influence in Howard’s writing is clear; he writes in a similarly conversational style as if he is speaking to you from across the room. You can imagine Howard in an Oxford-style tutorial on T.S. Eliot, leaning back in his chair to gesticulate excitedly, nearly dropping his pipe. Howard is equally as enamored of Four Quartets as I am. He argues that he would place it in the company of Chartres Cathedral, The Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, and the Mozart Requiem, as the major monuments of the Christian West.

A story is often told, attributed to T. S. Eliot. When asked what “The Waste Land” meant, he responded by rereading it. (Flannery O’Connor is said to have done the same when asked about one of her short stories). Howard enlightens us as to why this might be the case – a sacramental view of words. Van Eyck produced his masterpiece with paint and canvas; craftsmen built Chartres with glass and stone. Words are Eliot’s material. They are just as real as paint and stone. Howard explains, “It is not as though words are mere instruments or just the lowly handmaidens of meaning. Words are the thing.”[1]

Reading well (especially poetry) means reading sacramentally – allowing the words to be the meaning, not a vehicle by which we reach the real thing, an abstraction. “For Eliot, the Christian sacramentalist, you can’t drive a wedge between word and thing. The poet’s labor with words is a case in point of the indivisibility of word and thing in the sacraments. He has to close the gap, opened by the banalities of our ordinary chitchat, between word and thing.”[2]

Howard instructs the reader in this mode of sacramental reading. For example, in “The Dry Salvages”, Eliot captures an image of “The prayer of the bone on the beach.” Howard does not ask silly, abstract questions (“What does ‘the prayer of the bone’ mean?”) Rather, Howard asks a concrete question: “What would a bone pray?” He lets the words be and mean. It is a serious question, allowing the reader to sit with the weight of a stark image in a grim line.

As it turns out, the bone would pray “the unprayable prayer at the calamitous annunciation?” Would it really be calamitous if a bone were answered with an annunciation? (I rather think not, thus the question mark). Howard likens the entire poem cycle to such an annunciation. He explains,

With inexorable quiet, like the voice of Gabriel, it summons us to our End – both the end of all of our busy hopes about life and of all of our timorous defenses thrown up against the inexorable (we may recall here the poor sods “distracted from distraction by distraction”) and, most notably, of our End, which is the telos, or fruition of our lives, which will, of course, oblige us to assent to its summons with “Oh. Well, then (gasp), be it done unto me according to thy word.” There is no other way to the calamitous Beatific Vision. The Way Up to Joy turns out to require the Way Down (abandoning my pitiable array of distractions, assembled so anxiously, like flimsy pickets to ward off that Joy).[3]

We approach our telos by means of a physical mode. Recognizing that words are in this physical mode, and reading them as such, is what it means to read sacramentally. Speaking as though words are recaptures language from the banalities of chit-chat. In my home, for example, the word “literally” is verboten and the word “like” is used sparingly and appropriately. (You are starving, or you are not starving. You are decidedly not “like starving” or “literally starving.”)

We live in an age where banal chit-chat is a breath of fresh air from the perniciousness of everyday speech. Wrong is not right. Man is not she. Woman is not them. Eliot’s voice cries out to us, instructing us in the sacramentality of language:

The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the other,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.[4]


Will we listen?


[1] Thomas Howard, Dove Descending (Ignatius Press, 2006), 56.

[2] Ibid, 87-88.

[3] Ibid, 101-102.

[4] T S Eliot, “Little Gidding.” The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 144.

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