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Prayer for the week

31 October 2014

Through prayer the soul finds its true home amid unrest, says Hester Jones


Chorus: Our lost Appearances are saved by His love.

Simeon: And because of His Visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Chorus: Its errors forgiven, may our Vision come home.

W. H. Auden (1907-73) from For the Time Being: A Christmas oratorio

THE poet W. H. Auden was raised an Anglican, but lost touch with Christian practice in adulthood. He returned to Anglicanism, however, after witnessing the destruction of churches in the Spanish Civil War; and experiencing some personal turmoil, including, in 1941, the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Auden. His oratorio For the Time Being was consequently dedicated to her memory.

From this time on, Christian faith and its relation with art continued as a concern in Auden's writing. At some points it explicitly considers prayer, which Auden understands as the generous giving of attention to something external to the self.

Through such prayer, indeed, the self finds its true home amid unrest; and this particular moment of prayer, coming from the end of the seventh section of the oratorio, forms the end of the meditation attributed to Simeon, who, in the Bible, at the very end of his life, recognises God in the baby Jesus.

Through this dramatised moment at the end of Simeon's life, Auden develops further characteristic themes. At times of darkness or loss, we are encouraged to anchor our hope in the redeeming and preceding love of Christ, which seeks us out, despite our immersion in transitory experiences, or "lost appearances".

Indeed, that searching love awakens us in its substantial presence to our ready distraction from reality. Christ's incarnation in human form, his "visitation" on earth which this Christmas oratorio marks, gives meaning to our worldly lives, and also releases us from an anxious grasping of them.

Instead, we are invited to follow in Simeon's example, and to share in his vision of a God revealed and known in a vulnerable mortal baby. The words of the prayer move from desire for possession of an idealised God to an acceptance of forgiveness, a recognition of our fragility; they move from the negated "We may no longer desire" to the affirming "We pray that following him"; and, finally, in the concluding words of the chorus: "Its errors forgiven, may our Vision come home."

The oratorio itself uses as an epigraph a quotation from Romans 6.1-2: "Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? By no means." In Auden's understanding, departing from sin through the operation of forgiveness is like awakening into reality. We recognise that our vision and understanding of that reality will continue to be imperfect, and our perception and language will be inadequate. We continue to be spellbound by the appearances of things that lack substance, yet also beguile us, and hold us prisoner.

But Auden, drawing on the beautiful Nunc Dimittis from St Luke's Gospel, suggests that such awakening to a God present within our human limitations and mor-tality may release us from the ego's restless strivings, and bring us closer to the God who is our home, our beginning, and our end.

Within such recognition, we may find ourselves less driven by anxiety, and more rooted in peace - the peace that those we love and see no more also now enjoy. As we approach the season of remembering in the Church, from All Saints' and All Souls' to Remembrance Day, we may indeed find great reassurance and comfort in this prayer, and its reminder of God's presence in our world.

The Revd Dr Hester Jones is Senior Lecturer in English at Bristol University, and Vicar of Abbots Leigh with Leigh Woods, in the diocese of Bristol.

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