An Affirming Flame
On September 1, 1939, the poet W.H. Auden was in Manhattan at the Dizzy Club on West 52nd Street when he heard of the outbreak of World War II.
He was overcome by the sadness, uncertainty, and dread that washed over him, and he penned a poem that has become one of his most beloved---even though he was embarrassed by it.
Here it is in part...
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame. - September 1, 1939 - W.H. Auden
I've been thinking about this poem for a while, and about Auden's response to it later when it became well-known. He was embarrassed because of how raw it was, how quickly it had been written.
But it's that very rawness, simplicity, and frankness that has drawn people to the poem for decades.
Auden's words paint a portrait of humanity standing on the brink of an uncertain future---with the only certainty coming in the knowledge that the world it once knew has, for all intents and purposes, come to an end.
If ever there was a poem that captures the very moment within which we are standing, it is this one. And if ever there was a line that spoke more directly into our own troubled souls it's this:
We must love one another or die.The poet then imagines that there are people out there in the world who desire peace, who long for justice, and who are unafraid to let their light shine in the darkness.
In response to this vision, the poet acknowledges the common humanity we all share (composed of Eros and dust--"eros" being the Greek word for love) along with the fact that we all bear the burden of the moment.
He hopes that when the time comes, he will shine his light bravely.
Jesus once told his followers:
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. - Matthew 5:14-15For those of us who say we follow Jesus, this is the moment when we need to be shining every bit of the light within us.
Because there is hope to found in the midst of the uncertainty we are facing. There is life to be found even when the shadow of death threatens. There is joy on the other side of the sorrow we feel or any dread that falls upon us.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you have the chance to bear witness to the Resurrection of hope, life, joy, and peace within you and all around you---even when it appears to the rest of the world that it's all been left for dead.
We have no choice but to shine our light. To cover it, hide it, or deny it shines within us grieves the very heart of Christ. And we have no choice but to love... all our lives depend upon it.
The time has come. The moment is now.
The world may be filled with uncertainty, but the future is bright, as bright as the sun... because Christ is already there, preparing a place, making the way, giving us a path to follow as we stumble after him...
Stumbling on a path marked by sacrifice... a way drawn in love.
This is the way God saves the world.
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.