(This is the last reflection this season. Thanks for journeying with us! We hope that many blessings accompanied you and your loved ones!)
Anne Sanders, Oblate, St. Gertrude Monastery, Ridgely, MD
In 1927, poet/author/critic TS Eliot converted to the Anglican faith; about the same time, he sent a Christmas card to his publishers with a poem inside: The Journey of the Magi. It was published later in a compilation of his Christmas card writings, the “Ariel” Series.
In his intellectual/ artist/ literary circles, his peers were not impressed with his conversion. Virginia Woolf publicly mocked his faith; Nabokov’s plays contained parodies of his post-conversion work. Despite the ridicule of peers, TS Eliot remained a devout Anglo-Catholic until his death in 1965.
In the Journey of the Magi, a monologue written in the voice of one of the three Magi (now aged and reflecting on the event) we see Eliot’s journey to faith in the Mage’s recollection of his journey- first, the literal difficulty and hardships, the struggles with doubt and regret. Then, finding peace in accomplishment; recognizing signs and portent not yet understood, and finally, an acquiescence, a revelation, an epiphany: that hope is found in this new Life and to be reborn, the old ways must be abandoned.
Top: Star from nativity scene at Fraterna Dorma, site of the 4th World Congress of Oblates in Rome, 2017.
Middle: The Magi in my mother’s Hummel creche, 2017.
Bottom: Nativity scene at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Nassau, Bahamas, 2015.
The poem is based on the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, and the first 5 lines are quoted verbatim from Lancelot Andrewes 1622 Christmas sermon on the Epiphany
The Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
On this day, we celebrate the Epiphany of Jesus Christ, when our Savior was revealed to the world for the first time, as the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) tells us, as it was witnessed by wise men from the East.
What a powerful moment! And yet, I wonder, was the significance immediately recognized by the road weary Magi? Eliot’s Magi had a long time to reflect as he traveled the hundreds of miles on the return home and by the time he reached his own Kingdom and realized his epiphany, he understood that his life would no longer be the same and he would be unable to return to his old ways.
We know that Jesus continued to reveal himself to others throughout his lifetime- we have Gospels full of stories. Even so, he often continued to encounter a lack of understanding, even by those closest to him (hello, Peter!); it took Jesus’ death and resurrection for many of those who knew him to have their epiphanies.
This year, as I consider the Epiphany and in particular, Eliot’s poem, I am wondering about the ways God reveals himself to me.
How can I, as a 21st century Christian, living in such a busy and noisy time, ever hope to notice God’s presence in my life?
Am I keeping my eyes open and am I listening with the ear of my heart?
Do I hesitate, worrying about being “no longer at ease, in the old dispensation?”
How do I cope with new insight and reconcile old ways with new knowledge when I recognize God’s touch in my life?
…and then, what if I just don’t get it?
Like the Magi and Jesus’ apostles, we may not always realize or understand what is being revealed to us… or why. Or maybe we do, but we just don’t know what to do with the information. Or, maybe we don’t like or want to face what is being revealed.
God works in unexpected ways, beyond our imagination, and the truth is that in our cynical and modern world, we may not ever realize his presence. But I want to marvel in it! So, I understand that it is up to me to trust and rely on my faith and my relationship with God in order to realize my own epiphanies.
And as a follower of the tradition of St. Benedict, I am blessed to follow a Rule to help guide me on my Journey.
Did you notice that in his Journey of the Magi, TS Eliot stresses, twice: “…set down This. Set down This.” His Magi, is telling us emphatically to pay attention to what he is about to share. He is asking us to LISTEN. Sound familiar?
If you are interested in the full text of Lancelot Andrewes 1622 Christmas sermon on the Epiphany follow this link.