Chorus: Our lost Appearances are saved by His
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
Chorus: Its errors forgiven, may our Vision come
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
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
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.