Annual Auden Adventure

I fulfilled my self-imposed Advent discipline, reading W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, Sunday evening. Would that all disciplines were so delightful!

I have excerpted it more extensively in 2014 (Here’s my part 1 and part 2 comments), and perhaps earlier than that. This year, brevity.

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I have but now escaped a raging landscape:
There woods were in a tremor from the shouts
Of hunchbacks hunting a hermaphrodite; …

(Feeling, speaking in W.H. Auden, For the Time Being. I suppose it was twisted of me to think of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and catty of me to share the thought.)

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O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.

(Herod, contemplating the Massacre of the Innocents, in W.H. Auden, For the Time Being)

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For the Time Being is a pivotal book in the career of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. W. H. Auden had recently moved to America, fallen in love with a young man to whom he considered himself married, rethought his entire poetic and intellectual equipment, and reclaimed the Christian faith of his childhood. Then, in short order, his relationship fell apart and his mother, to whom he was very close, died. In the midst of this period of personal crisis and intellectual remaking, he decided to write a poem about Christmas and to have it set to music by his friend Benjamin Britten. Applying for a Guggenheim grant, Auden explained that he understood the difficulty of writing something vivid and distinctive about that most clichéd of subjects, but welcomed the challenge. In the end, the poem proved too long and complex to be set by Britten, but in it we have a remarkably ambitious and poetically rich attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the history of the Roman Empire and of Judaism, and as an ever-new and always contemporary event for the believer. For the Time Being is Auden’s only explicitly religious long poem, a technical tour de force, and a revelatory window into the poet’s personal and intellectual development. This edition provides the most accurate text of the poem, a detailed introduction by Alan Jacobs that explains its themes and sets the poem in its proper contexts, and thorough annotations of its references and allusions.

(Amazon’s summary of Alan Jacobs’ 2013 critical edition of the poem, which also is available in Edward Mendelson’s Collected Poems of Auden)

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.


The Righteous Reaction

Sister Vassa, for those not in the know, is an American-born, Anglophone Russian Orthodox nun/scholar/podcaster/blogger living in Vienna. She dispenses bursts of good spiritual advice while deadpanning about her mostly imaginary production assistants and “zillions” of adoring fans.

Saturday’s blog hit me where I live (turn down the volume if you don’t like Little Drummer Boy):

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and not wanting to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Mt 1: 18-19)

As I prepare for the upcoming feast of the Lord’s Nativity, let me reflect a bit on Joseph’s surprisingly “quiet” reaction to Mary’s as yet unexplained pregnancy. We see no shock or dismay in this righteous man, who was confronted with a situation that, – let’s say it like it is, – looked very, very bad. And yet all Joseph wanted to do in this situation was: 1. protect Her from public disgrace, and 2. dismiss Her “quietly.” 

So this is a “righteous” reaction to the perceived sin of another human being. Today let me gratefully contemplate Joseph’s humble and quiet discretion, lest I be tempted to display shock and dismay at any perceived amorality or sinful behaviour in my surroundings. My shock and my dismay is neither righteous nor helpful. In fact, when I am judgmental I become utterly incapable of being helpful; when I try to play God’s role of Judge, I close myself off from His grace-filled mercy. I also display an infantile lack of self-knowledge, but I’ll elaborate on that point some other time.

During this Nativity Fast let me abstain from shock and dismay, that I can make my journey toward Bethlehem with a proper focus. Let me “make straight the paths of the Lord” in my own heart, that I may greet Him in the same way He is born, in quietness and humility.

(Italics added)

I assume that protecting from disgrace is not necessarily the order when

  • the disgrace has a victim or victims other than the bad actor; or
  • the disgraceful behavior is already public and others are applauding it.

But gossip about a truly private moral lapse is unwarranted.

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.


The Logic of the Incarnation

I was talking this week to someone who formerly had a socially respectable degree of Christian faith, but seems to have lost it to a socially acceptable degree now. He was patiently alluding, for the benefit of the folks he knew were more robustly religious and needed an analogy to raise their consciousness, to the equal absurdity of all religions:

We laugh at the idea of Joseph Smith finding stainless steel plates and translating them with special glasses and angelic assistance, but a virgin getting pregnant and bearing the Savior of the world seems perfectly logical to us.

Well, actually, no. It doesn’t seem logical at all. The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is more scandalous than logical, and is at best a major paradox:

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;
the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!

Bah! Humbug! That sort of thing offendeds just about everyone who heards of it. God is god and humanity is humanity and never the twain shall meet in actual history. Everybody knows that. We really prefer it that way. There’s probably even something in the Constitution about it. It’s related to the ease with which we “evicted Him from public schools,” isn’t it?

The earliest pan-heresy, Gnosticism, tried in various ways to make Jesus’ incarnation logical – to take off the rough edges. The Proto-heretic Arius cleaned it up by making Jesus Christ a (mere) creature. Thomas Jefferson made his own spiffy little Bible that took out that parts that offended him.

That’s probably how most heresies start: trying to make things logical, as if we understood God well enough to tidy up after Him. (I owe that insight to Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon.)

So if you think that the event we Christians are celebrating today is logical, you’re probably celebrating some distorted and sanitized version. But if you think it’s shocking, you might just be onto something.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.