Sunday, January 6, 2019

Eliot's Reflection on the Magi's Journey

Today the Church recalls the coming of the Magi to adore the Christ Child. We know little about who they were or the nature of their journey. Their arrival is generally depicted as being an occasion of great joy, and no doubt it was. But great religious experiences, even while being joyful, can also be challenging. Indeed, many of the saints spoke of their deep longing to be with God; in some sense, a taste of His presence was as much a curse as a blessing, creating, as it did, a longing which would only be fully satisfied in heaven. This is one way of reading the Beatitudes: the blessed are troubled in this world precisely because they do not belong to it.

In 1927, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem reflecting on the Magi. (You can hear him read it here.) He considers the difficulty of the journey, suggesting the psychological or spiritual challenges that so often come on the heels of physical ones. He includes the mundane details which so often fill our loftiest endeavors.  He also reflects on the longing and discontent that true religious experience can prompt. This Christmas season, we would do well to imitate the fortitude of the Magi. And, should we persevere in the journey of faith, we should expect to be changed: powerfully, deeply, even troublingly, and - yes - ultimately joyfully.

The Journey Of The Magi

'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 arriving 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.
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