Finding Eliot’s Altar by Tom Darin Liskey

T.S. Eliot famously came to faith in Christ at a time when many other writers in the so-called Lost Generation shunned any idea of the divine following the bloodbath of WWI.

Without a doubt, Eliot’s conversion came with some controversy. Despite his secret baptism in 1927, Virginia Wolfe reportedly lambasted the poet for embracing the Anglo-Catholicism tradition: “Did he go to church?  Did he hand round the plate?  Oh really! Then what did he experience when he prayed?”

While Woolf was clearly baffled by Eliot’s faith in Christ, her question is a valid one. What did this poet experience when he prayed?

I’ve always been curious myself, because Eliot is one of my favorite poets. I’ve been an avid Eliot reader since my youth. I have read—and re-read– his Four Quartets throughout much of my adult life. I even carried a dogeared copy of this book in various journalistic stints in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. Spiritually speaking, this book was my compass, always pointing my heart to the true north of God.

But there’s another connection. Eliot, though widely known as an English poet, is also a fellow Missourian. We were both born and raised on the banks of Mississippi River, albeit nearly a century apart.

This past June in London, I stumbled on Eliot’s home church in South Kensington. It was by happenstance. I say that, not because I am a believer in coincidence, it’s just that London is full of beautiful churches, and the only thing that grabbed my attention about St Stephen’s on Gloucester Road that summer evening was the open door.

Candlelight flickered in the shadowy sanctuary when I crossed the threshold. The scent of heat-stricken flowers and old stone filled the air.

I slipped my camera out of my bag to take a shot when I saw a plaque on the wall stating that Eliot had served as churchwarden here.

Despite the late hour, Father Philp gave me free rein to explore this church where the lonesome convert—the estranged husband—and self-identified English poet—came to pray, meditate and worship during some of his travails.

I finished getting a few shots, thankful that God nudged me in the direction of this 19th century church—a sacred space that helped to provide some of the context in Eliot’s more contemplative verseswhen a young lady stepped into the sanctuary with her beau in tow. She spoke with an Eastern European accent.

“Father, I am Orthodox. May I light a candle and pray?”

Father Phillip nodded.

“Of course, you may,” he said with a generous smile.  “You are welcome here.”

She lit her candle in the penumbra of the stone tabernacle, uttered a silent supplication, and then made the sign of the cross before she fled away into the quiet streets of South Kensington, hand in hand with her lover.

I turned to leave as well, full of these words from Eliot:

“We thank thee for the lights that we have kindled,

The light of altar and of sanctuary.”