Sibyl, Eliot, and Jesus
“I saw with my own eyes Sibyl at Cumae, hanging in a cage, and when the boy said to her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” She answered, “I want to die.”
So reads the epigraph to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which he quotes from the Satyricon by Petronius. Sibyl, having been granted immortality by Apollo, lived long enough to regret her request for eternal life, which did not come with eternal youth. The wish to die seems foreign, abrasive, and strange, yet there is a truth to be heard. Eliot continues,
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Eliot speaks of a cycle from death to life. We spend so much of our lives discussing, fearing, preparing for, and steeling ourselves against death. We say we live and die, but Eliot knows that we die and then live. We preach life after death, denying death its victory, but perhaps we forget that death has always brought life. In the spring, out of dead land comes new life, and out of the death of seeds comes new life; as Jesus said in John 12:23-25 (NRSV):
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Sibyl thought that loving her life meant wishing it would never end, but she soon learned that loving her life meant death. Eliot knew that spring life comes after the death of winter. Jesus taught that death bears fruit, and inside we recoil and squirm because we recognize the validity of the truth while resisting our surrender. We will not go gently into that good night. But what if we did?
I speak, of course, metaphorically. Jesus calls us to lose our life to gain his life. That we might die to self so that Christ can live in us, through us, for us. Year after year, we watch the cycle of winter then spring, death then life. Yet we compassionately grieve with Sibyl as she clings to a half-life, knowing all too well what it is to hold too tightly to what we have. All the while, Jesus calls us to let go of what we have so that we can have more and better.
As we approach winter, as death comes in chilly winds and falling leaves, I am reminded of the beauty of it all. Death, in all its glory, gives way to new life, if only I endure the winter. If only I learn to surrender my life to Christ, I can then have new life. I pray that I may not hold on to who I have been, clinging to life like Sibyl. Rather, I pray that I might trust life to follow death, Christ to begin where I end, and, with faith, I find new life.