Tomorrow life returns to normal so today seems a good day to post the last two sections of W. H. Auden’s well-known “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” Auden writes that between the promise of Christmas and the season of Lent and Good Friday lies “the time being,” which he gets from that almost invisible expression “for the time being.” This is the interim time, the time of neither great rejoicing nor great suffering.
If God is present at all times and not just during the holy-days, then this is a particularly challenging time—the time of the Christmas hangover, the time when we are back in the Aristotelian city where everything is matter-of-fact measurable, the time where we operate according to Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s mechanics. Wouldn’t great suffering be preferable, Auden asks, to this time when the Spirit doesn’t seem to be showing forth in force but is merely practicing his scales? This time when there are “bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, irregular verbs to learn”?
But The Time Being, no less than any other time, needs to be redeemed from insignificance—which (as I read it) is to say that we must seek the divine at all times. Auden’s poem reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” where people live in a limbo state. Eliot, however, writes, “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow,” whereas Auden seems to say, “Between Christmas and Lent, falls the challenge and the opportunity.”
Therefore, as we enter this new year, let us resolve to seek God every day, even during (or rather, especially during) those unpropitious times. If we seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety, which is to say in the gray season of depression, we will come to a great city that has expected our return for years. We will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. If we love him in this mundane and unpromising World of the Flesh, all of life’s occasions will be seen as marriage days, not just Christmas. Every day is a day to unite with Spirit and dance for joy.
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
By W. H. Auden
Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done,
That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.