For The Time Being
W. H. Auden’s long narrative poem “For the Time Being” is subtitled “A Christmas Oratio” because it focuses on the birth of Christ. But I’ve always thought it reads better after Christmas, sometime during the long winter that stretches into February (or, if you live in Minnesota, March!) because of the somber mood it strikes as it evokes the mixture of challenge and blessing that life on this side of the miraculous birth provides.
Auden captures that sense of waiting, of a suddenly-insufficient present reality that has been punctured by a taste of eternity, by naming it “the Time Being.” Glimpsing God’s inexplicable grace displayed in the wonder and vulnerability of the nativity, “ordinary” life seems to have, like the kitchen table Auden mentions, “shunk during the holidays.”
Yes, the Time Being – the time of waiting, of wanting, of worrying, of existing and persisting – can be “the most trying time of all.” But it, too, is the time that Christ came to redeem, the place where the unrelenting and merciless beat of Chronos is interrupted, surprised, and eventually defeated by the mercy-filled moment of God’s Kairos. We live in the time being, to be sure – and I have felt that of late like at few other times in my life – but we also live in the light of the new dawn that has been promised.
It’s a longer poem than I usually post. But take your time, read it with care, and you will be surprised at how Auden captures both the struggle of the moment and the promise of redemption that pervades even the most mundane elements of our life in God’s world. Blessings.
from “For the Time Being”
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.
W. H. Auden, from “For the Time Being,” to be released soon in a new critical edition, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (W.H. Auden: Critical Editions), and presently available in his Collected Poems (Modern Library).