The blackthorn is in blossom, the birds are beginning to find their nests once again so spring is, I suppose, upon us as the days begin noticeably to lengthen. WH Auden in his poem ‘For the time being’ writes: “For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;” ‘Nowhere that is not a desert.’ In case that double negative proves problematic, in translation: desert is everywhere. There is, in other words, no returning to the ‘original Garden’ we need to look for the experience of wholeness elsewhere, in all that is here – then at the last moment comes the realisation that this is in fact the garden, the creation, we were just not seeing it in that way. For a moment of perfection, shortly after dawn, when all is crisp and clear, a clean slate awaiting her first act, is always just beyond our grasp.
The temptation therefore is to fill our lives with that which is short term in order to keep the emptiness at bay, until that is we stop looking and start living. Really paying attention to what is there, to which Auden’s poem alludes, is a task we can get stuck into in Lent. Beyond the superficial ‘giving up’ of something often done with good intentions, for self betterment, or a little self denial – cynically – I always think if we give up something we like, we end up craving it all the more and forget to use the time saved for more profitable engagements. So comes the more positive version of the giving up, taking something up, in which we are actually giving up by stealth, that which is most precious – our time.
Jesus is confronted with the superficial by the Devil in the wilderness. And then Jesus tells the Devil where to go. These superficial temptations of nourishment, safety and power are not really tempting to Jesus, who, after spending time alone in the wilderness is able to see clearly the way that is ahead – no shortcuts. Auden’s poem ‘for the time being’ continues: The miracle is the only thing that happens, / but to you it will not be apparent / Until all events have been studied and nothing happens to you that you cannot explain. / Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die. Auden wrote this poem, following the death of his mother. The miracle of life that is bound up in death. We often deny our death, or just ignore that which is inevitable – probably I suspect simply because it is inevitable. Probably also for the same reason we ignore the tax bill, they’ll get round to catching up with you in the end, so there’s no need worrying about it whilst you are still on the run. We know we are human, partly by these two inevitabilities. Jesus, very human, refuses to give in to the temptation to be more than he is in that moment. Death will come, but at its appointed time.
“For the garden is the only place there is, / but you will not find it Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert; / The miracle is the only thing that happens, / but to you it will not be apparent / Until all events have been studied and nothing happens to you that you cannot explain. / Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.” WH Auden ‘For the time being’ A Christmas Oratorio
A task if you need one for Lent, to focus on what is beyond the superficial, to give up a little time in paying attention to everything that is around us so that we can, in the midst of desert, begin to see that garden once again.