Way back in 2007 I described in some detail the difficulties of the journey the Magi made to seek the Holy Child. I related that journey to the journey each of us experiences in life with these words:
“On this day, when we celebrate Epiphany, we acknowledge that the journey of the wise men to find the Christ child is also the journey of every child of God. Their journey is also our journey. We too seek to find the Holy, to validate our relationship to God, and to offer gifts of thanksgiving.”
Last year I went on to talk about the return journey of the Wise Men wondering about how they responded to what they had experienced and then connected that again to our own journeys through life:
“The spiritual journey of our lives is determined by how we experience the holy in the world around us and how we respond to that experience. We can ignore it. We can poo-poo it, or we can thank God for it.”
This year I want to consider the darker or more difficult side of spiritual experience, suggested to me by a poem by T.S. Eliot called “Journey of the Magi.” What he leaves us to ponder, difficult as it is, certainly matches my own experience.
The poem begins, much as my first sermon began, with a description of the difficult journey to Jerusalem.
“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, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow. . .
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and their
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters, . . .
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.”
The middle part of this poem is a brief vignette of their arrival in a temperate valley, suggesting the area around Jericho, but the description of the valley is filled with biblical references, e.g. three trees on the low sky, suggesting the crucifixion and a white horse galloping away in a meadow, like the first horse of the Apocalypse. Not that they recognized any of this.
The last stanza is in the voice of an old man remembering:
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 biter 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.”
What this makes very clear is that the experience of the Holy, or the experience of an epiphany, in which we either see something we’ve never seen before or we see something in a startling new way changes us. While it may be a change for the better, it is fraught with difficulties. While the experience may well be the birth of something new in us, it usually also represents a death of something old in us.
How do we return to life as it was after such an experience? Well, the truth is that we don’t, we can’t, unless we choose to ignore the experience. That, of course, is the comfortable path. Put it aside and resume life as it was.
That was not what Wise Men would do, and so they suffered various challenges, the same ones we may face when we experience the holy in our lives. They returned home, but it was never the same. Their people and their gods now seemed alien to them, and vice versa. I know that this experience of being an alien in the midst of familiar surroundings is wrenching.
The only other option is to struggle to integrate the new experience and the new understanding into what we thought we knew before. And sometimes that requires throwing out the old road map and creating a new one. This is a daunting task, one that requires a certain amount of time and attention and living with uncertainty. No wonder so many folks put it aside.
As a young person, as a middle-aged person, I found it well worth the effort to do exactly that, in spite of the alienation and discomfort it caused. But I also have great sympathy for the old Wise Man in the poem who concludes, “I should be glad of another death.” Whether he is talking about his physical death or having another spiritual experience makes no difference.
Whether we actively seek the holy in our lives, whether we struggle with the meaning of our experience, or whether we choose the path of least resistance, we are all children of God.
What I said last year still holds: “Only at journey’s end will we find our true home, and the gift we give will be ourselves, laid at the manger each Christmas, offered at the altar every Sunday, and returned to the Spirit when we die.”