Monday, May 3, 2010

What do we do while we're waiting to suffer?

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.

WH Auden, end of the Christmas Oratorio

Not like WH Auden has any right to be my spiritual authority, but I like this poem a lot and thought I might take a digression and figure out if its view is biblical. According to this, as I understand, we see Jesus by glimpses and briefly experience his order of things, where he and no longer we are the center and everything takes on significance in relation to Him. But we go back to our lives and the mundane world comes with us, and in day-to-day life everything loses its significance, including ourselves, and our joy at seeing Jesus becomes guilt that we weren't able to sustain that life we were invited into and that the promised joy was not really able to redeem our lives. Hence, the reason to seek suffering to inhibit our self-reflection. But this comes from "craving the sensation but ignoring the Cause." But in bringing people who are His into boring and non-significant everyday life, to praise Him and trust Him in its small productive activities, he 'redeems from insignificance' broken machines and irregular verbs themselves. Hence, God does not even cheat the World of its triumph.

I think the reason I like this so much is that if we're trying to follow Jesus we think about life at the extremes a lot. Our theology tells us how to live for Jesus if, say, someone offers to kill us if we don't deny Him, but not terribly much about how to live for him while doing statistics homework. A logical implication to this is, stop spending so much time doing statistics homework and start to get into situations where people offer to kill you. I'm thinking about when I first read Bonhoeffer's chapter "The Call to Discipleship" about how every disciple of Jesus needs to radically leave behind all their safety and livelihood so he can be the only thing that they follow or trust in. My instinct said, 1. Is that Biblical? 2. If everyone left their nets, who would catch fish to feed people? and 3. We only can leave behind our lives and follow Jesus when he calls us, and he doesn't actually call us right away or all the time. What do we do while we're waiting to suffer?

And so I guess I'm back to where I was at the end of the last post, but now I know WH Auden agrees with me :) We bring Jesus into our pointless sufferings now, our 'spirit practices his scales of rejoicing'. The greater sufferings will come, but in Jesus, not only the great sufferings will be redeemed and glorified and merged with his (because not even our greatest sufferings ever could possibly compare or even have anything to do with his; really, compared with his suffering, could even martyrdom be more redemptive than a stubbed toe, apart from his mercy which declares that it shall be?) but the little sufferings of the boring day-to-day world, because they are part of our redemption, will also be redeemed. As the poem says a bit later,

"He is the Life
Love Him in the World of the Flesh
And at your marriage, all its occasions will dance for joy"


Anonymous said...

This was a striking post. Auden's words are brutal. They carry a sense of lingering guilt, and a terrible existential separation from salvation. It reminds me of Peter, who didn't know what to do when he met Salvation, except to condemn himself and hide from Him.
> But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. (Luke 5:8)

Peter could have taken his statement seriously and *not* engaged Jesus, living on in the sentiment Auden describes:
> [...] 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, [...]

It's a hard work to release guilt and let salvation be salvation. --To let salvation remain Him and not It; to take hold of the Cause, even when the sensation goes away. (line 10). The work of God is to believe in Jesus. (John 6:29)

Look at this section, where the crowd wants Jesus to provide an "it", but Jesus insists on giving a "He".
John 6:29: Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
John 6:30: So they said to him, **“Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?**
John 6:31: Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
John 6:32: Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
John 6:33: **For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”**
John 6:34: They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

I find strange (sad?) Auden's backdrop of separation and guilt, against which he strives to practice the scales of rejoicing. ... If Auden wasn't so distanced from The Life, if Auden's eschatology didn't postpone salvation until the "triumph of the world", if Auden's dispensationalism didn't declare God to Will silence toward our Souls for the Time Being... then Auden wouldn't be practicing. He would be performing. Of course, that may just be a character Auden is using for the poem. And we all experience these feelings, regardless of if we think they are Biblical.

Anonymous said...

I ran out of time last night and wanted to make sure I finished my reply. I think your analysis is good! Although I think I disagree on the place of suffering in redemption...? I haven't read as much about it as you have though. Let me read through your entire series and I'll try to synthesize something on the subject.

Thanks for writing. :-)

I had some eggplant the other day.

seppo said...

thanks for you excellent and thought-provoking comments! i never thought about it like that at all... i always thought the poem was really hopeful and comforting, probably because the place he's writing from is a place where i live.

i don't know, i think it really describes the mundane experience of lots of christians. that is, i think most people most of the time don't experience the whole world and every circumstance as something holy and eternally useful. we ARE existentially separated from salvation to some extent right now... that's why we and creation and the Spirit are all groaning together... as Paul says, "hope that is seen is not hope, for why does one still hope for what he sees?"

I think that's what WH Auden is talking about when he says, in the Stable everything was a You and nothing was an It... he's not talking about Jesus there, but the surrounding world. Jesus opens a possible world where since everything has a purpose and is in relationship with him, we can be in relationship with everything and everything has meaning. I think the poem is a sober and intelligent description of how life is... at least for me, suffering is really the best way to experience this, because you have to live really intentionally and so you are way more aware of how "All Things are working together for good" and thus All Things become your friends.

Not that we should only wait for suffering for this to happen; I think Auden is describing not really the way things are, but the most common experience of the way things are. Machines and bills and irregular verbs are not missions and martyrdom; they're not easy (for most people, I think)to see as redemptive. But Auden is saying, I think, that THEY ARE! and it is our part to redeem the Time Being from insignificance... to rejoice even when we can't feel Jesus working and don't see the point in anything and feel like there's not much to care about one way or the other, because God's invisible will is working through everything, and nothing will be insignificant, every single thing, even when it thought it was was working on its own, will turn out to have been a soldier conscripted into God's army and everything will be a part of His triumph. So when he's talking about God will cheat no-one, not even the world of its triumph, I think that he's not talking about the end of the world; he's saying that nothing is meaningless and that that meaningfulness is in Christ and will be clearly seen when we are fully united with him. Like in a cheesy romantic comedy where at the end there's a montage of all the bad things that the couple went through, each one of which was necessary for finally bringing them together in true love.

There's a lovely part later on, which goes "He is the Life/ Love Him in the World of the Flesh/ and at your marriage all its occasions will dance for joy." He's not saying that our life is separate from Christ; he's describing a situation that most of us, most of the time experience it as being separate from Christ but it's not. So sitting in our rooms, even when we're feeling all alone and hearing nothing from God, the spirit needs to still practice his scales of rejoicing.

Going back to the cheesy movie metaphor.. That's why it's a temptation to crave the sensation and ignore the Cause. It's not a good thing to crave suffering. The appropriate thing is to crave Jesus, his return and to "groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies."

Am I way off?