Ite, Missa est (Incarnational Semiotics 6)

For the moment, however, the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury express their assent. While “a Te Deum is sung in Latin by a choir in the distance,” the Women sing the praises of God in the newly renewed significance of the symbols which populate the created order:

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth,

In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm; in all of Thy creatures, both hunters and hunted.

For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist

Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.[i]

God had brought the “light” by which all else is illuminated and understood, and it is seen, in turn, that all things point to God as symbols of his “glory.” “All things affirm Thee in living,” they continue, but it is man, as homo significans, who “must consciously praise Thee.”[ii] It is man, however, as the symbolling and worshipping animal, that creates the signification and praise of things in the natural world.[iii] And it is “the blood of Thy martyrs and saints” which “shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.”[iv] The blood of the martyrs, a sharing in and a renewal of the blood of Christ in the Eucharist, is a transubstantiation of the ennui of the waste land to “the life of significant soil.”[v] With the Women of Canterbury, writes Gardner, “we pass . . . through horror, out of boredom, into glory.”[vi]

The final fusion of signifier and signified into a single reality comes in the final words, of the play, a prayer spoken by the Women of Canterbury:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Blessed Thomas, pray for us.[vii]

In the end, Thomas’s name is prayed alongside that of Christ in a litany of supplicatory prayer. In his 1950 lectures on Poetry and Drama at Harvard University, Eliot said,

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.[viii]

This is, of course, the point to which this prayer to Thomas as a saint now brings the audience/congregation. Words are once again unable to adequately express. Their lack of expressiveness, however, does not arise from the lack of “truth” or lack of a “transcendental signified.” Rather, it is because the symbols are, for a moment, no longer necessary and so are fused with the reality, as the Eucharist is simultaneously the symbol and real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. But now those who have partaken must re-enter the world. In the words of the Mass, “Ite, Missa est,” or “Go, the Mass is ended.”

Eliot later expressed his belief that Murder in the Cathedral had failed because of its archaic setting.[ix] He seems, however, to have been an unduly harsh critic of his own work. In the same lectures, he expressed the goal of “bring[ing] poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.”[x] The archaic setting of Murder in the Cathedral, however, is not necessarily a barrier between it and the accomplishment of this goal of imbuing common language with beauty and meaning.[xi] Especially through the use of Eucharistic imagery, Eliot accomplished his goal of the redemption of language, and therefore of communication and significance in human existence, in Murder in the Cathedral. The Mass itself, upon which so much of the structure of the drama relies, is not itself insufficient because of its archaism. Rather, it, like the drama, conveys the character of timelessness in the maintenance of its traditional settings and forms. It is, in short, incarnational, an in-breaking of the eternal and the divine into the temporal and material order, thereby revealing the symbolic nature of the material order which, in turn, points to the very light by which it is revealed.

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 220.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] James Olney, “Four Quartets: ‘Folded in a Single Party’,” in T. S. Eliot: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 38.

[iv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[v] Ibid., V.50.

[vi] Gardner, 138.

[vii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (London: Faber and Faber, 1950), 35.

[ix] Ibid., 23.

[x] Ibid., 27.

[xi] Nancy D. Hargrove, “T.S. Eliot and and the Parisian Theatre World, 1910–1911,” South Atlantic Review 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2001): 36.

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