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Sermon for Matins

The Reverend Canon Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster

Sunday, 26th August 2007

This year is the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest poets of the last century, W H Auden, who is memorialised here in Poets Corner. Earlier this year, near his actual birthday, there was a poetry reading here of some of his work. But as far as I know there has been so sermon about him in this year so I thought I would rectify that today. But there is a risk in preaching about him, because he made some fairly astringent comments about sermons, one quoted in an important book about Auden and Christianity by Professor Kirsch of the University of Virginia. ‘In my opinion’ Auden wrote, ‘sermons should be a) fewer b) longer c) more theologically instructive and less exhortatory. I must confess that in my life I have very seldom heard a sermon from which I derived any real spiritual benefit. Most of them told me that I should love God and my neighbour more than I do, but that I knew already’.

Well, whether this sermon meets his requirements I shall have to leave for you to judge, but you may be pleased to know that I do not intend to follow his advice about sermons being longer!

Auden was born in York into an Anglican family, both of his grandfathers and four of his uncles were Anglican clergy and with his parents he used to go to an Anglo-Catholic Church. He traced his love of music and language partly to the church services of his childhood. But while he was at school in Norfolk at about the age of 15 he discovered that he had lost his faith, mainly because he lost interest in religion more generally. From school he went to Christ Church, Oxford and made friends with a group of poets including Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender. After Oxford he met up again with Christopher Isherwood, whom he knew from his prep schooldays so he was part of a very gifted literary group. By then he knew himself to be predominately homosexual, and it was that which led him on leaving Oxford to live in Berlin for nine months, a city then notably more tolerant than England.

After returning to this country and a period teaching at various schools, in 1939 he decided to move to New York and it was there that he re-established his link with Anglicanism through the Episcopal Church.. But that came about partly through an experience he had while teaching in England. Let him describe it in his own words: ‘One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking causally about matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) My personal feeling towards them were unchanged – they were still colleagues, not intimate friends – but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it……And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.’

Later he was to write ‘happiness consists in a loving and trusting relation to God…Thou shalt love God and thy neighbour and thou shalt be happy mean the same thing.’

Now that may sound like a fairly sentimental understanding of Christianity, but Auden’s theological understanding was never that, it was always complex. He believed that there had to be a creative interplay between faith and scepticism. In a poem on the Crucifixion he wrote:

Now did he really break the seal/ And rise again? We dare not say.

And in some draft notes on religion and theology he wrote, ‘Today, we find Good Friday easy to accept; what scandalises us is Easter; Modern man finds a happy ending, a final victory of Love over the Prince of this World, very hard to swallow.’

And that mixture of faith and scepticism can be seen in a sermon he preached from this very pulpit in 1966. ‘Those of us’ he said ‘who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on the subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals. Where faith is concerned, very few of us have the right to say more than—to vary a saying of Simone Weil’s — “I believe in a God who is like the True God in everything except that he does not exist, for I have not yet reached the point where God exists.”’ And he went on ‘As for loving and forgiving our enemies, the less we say about that the better. Our lack of faith and love are facts we have to acknowledge, but we shall not improve either by a morbid and essentially narcissistic moaning over our deficiencies. Let us rather ask, with caution and humour — given our time and place and talents, what, if our faith and love were perfect, would we be glad to find it obvious to do?‘

What he most valued in Christianity is that he thought it a this-worldly religion; a religion that illuminates our every day world. In his long poem on the canonical hours, which reflects on human experience at the different hours when the Catholic monastic tradition brought the monks to their prayers, we can see that in the first and last verses of the poem for Terce, normally said at 9 in the morning, the hour when, tradition has it, Jesus was condemned to death. He starts with normal human experience.

After shaking paws with his dog,
(Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind,)
The hangman sets off briskly over the heath;
He does not know yet who will be provided
To do the high works of Justice with:
Gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom,
(Today she has one of her headaches)
With a sigh the judge descends his marble stair;
He does not know by what sentence
He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars;
And the poet, taking a breather
Round his garden before starting his eclogue,
Does not know whose Truth he will tell.

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?)
Knows that in fact our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.

In some notes he wrote for a television broadcast in 1967 he said ‘an author can no longer assume, as his ancestors could, that his audience is, at least officially, Christian. He has therefore to try to write something which will have meaning for others as human beings, whether they are believers or unbelievers.’ He achieved that by stressing that Christianity was not other-worldly, but this worldly. ‘Eternity’ he wrote once ‘is the decision now, action now, one’s neighbours here.’ That emphasis on the every day, the ordinary experiences of human life that are illuminated by a Christ who shows us God by suffering is, I think, what makes him so powerful, if challenging, a Christian writer. He died in 1973 aged 66, and he did, I think, in his own person embody a sort of generous, humane, and questioning Anglicanism, and an Anglicanism that was still part of the mainstream of English cultural life. In my darker moments now I fear both are under threat. So with that threat in mind and on this his centenary year I can close in no better way that with perhaps his most often quoted piece, the first verse from Funeral Blues:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

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