Friday, March 27, 2009

Journey of the Magi

-T. S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, 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 gong 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 may 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 lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have 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.

I'm drawn to T.S. Eliot's brutal honesty, his willingness to write what he really feels rather than what he would like to feel. "The Journey of the Magi" is one such study in candor.

Christianity came hard for Eliot. Like C. S. Lewis, he was "dragged into the Kingdom kicking and screaming." His was a desperate leap from bitter cynicism to assurance, characterized by a good deal of uncertainty, "wavering between profit and loss," as he put it. Here, in this poem Eliot spells out his ambiguity.

"The Journey of the Magi" purports to be a monologue in which one of the wise men, traveling from the East to find the Christ-child, recounts his journey with all its hardship and perplexities.

The opening paragraph of the poem (in quotes) is a direct quotation from a Nativity sermon by a seventeenth century bishop of the Church of England, Lancelot Andrewes, lines Eliot admired for their stark realism. Instead of the simple Gospel report that "magi from the east arrived in Bethlehem," we read of one man's arduous journey: the cold, the distance, the dirt, the sleepless nights, the regret, the memories of a palace and the pretty girls left behind; and the hostility of those he encountered on the way, their lack of understanding and encouragement, singing in his ears, "This is all folly."

One after another (note the repetitious "and") we learn of the obstacles along the way. The man has little confidence in himself as he pushes toward his goal, haunted by doubt and no assurance that he will find what he seeks at the end of his journey.

The next paragraph opens with a ray of hope: "Then at dawn we came to a temperate valley": dawn and freshness, the rich smell of damp earth and vegetation, running streams and mills beating in the darkness. Yet in the midst of these pleasant surroundings there are ominous signs: three trees silhouetted against the sky and sinister hands dicing (throwing dice) for pieces of silver, and "no information."

Nevertheless the wise man journeys on, and eventually arrives one evening, "not a moment too soon" (catch the moment of heightened expectation!) to find "the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory"-a masterpiece of understatement if there ever was one! The goal of the grueling quest is an anti-climax. There is no feeling of fulfillment; no drama, no excitement, no ecstasy. Only perplexity and paradox.

The old man's faith is firm, "I would do it again," but what was the purpose of it all? Was it only to die to his past life-his friends, and the ease and affluence of his former days? Having found the Child, he cannot go back to the old life and "an alien people clutching their gods." He is no longer at ease there. Yet, his new life is "hard and bitter agony," something "like Death." Is there nothing now to live for but to wait for "another (final) death?"

Here is one man's dark night of the soul, a period of unhappiness and skepticism in which he wonders if it's been worthwhile to leave everything to find and follow Jesus. Whose mind, if we're true to ourselves, has not harbored that thought?

Some individuals live in their heads; they're born with a questioning, inquiring spirit and are predisposed to doubt. It's the way they are, the way God made them. Other's doubts are born of argument: a comment by a respected, but unbelieving university professor, a random word spoken by a friend, an article on the Internet, reflecting the spirit of this age. Or doubt may come through sickness, disappointment, or a friend who succumbs to sin. All give logic to unbelief. What then can we do when "doubt swells and surges, with swelling doubt behind"?

We can take comfort in the thought that doubt is not displeasing to God. He knows how frail and fragile one's faith can be. "A smoking flax He will not quench."[1] He is compassionate, merciful, and infinitely patient with our misgivings. He was himself tempted in all points as we are.[2] He understands.

We can pray, for nothing is of ourselves, not even faith. Faith is a gift of God. [3] "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" is the cry of honest skepticism.[4]

We can turn doubt into action. We can take up the next duty, the very next thing God is asking us to do. Like Mother Teresa, who, if we can belief her biographers, floundered in deep despair in her final years, we can live a life of faith in the midst of our uncertainty. No matter how dark things seem to be there is truth to be lived and, though it seems odd, that obedience can begin to restore our faith. As Jesus said, "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."[5]

Finally, we can ponder Peter's response when Jesus asked his disciples if they too would go away: "Lord, to whom shall we go?"[6]


[1] Isaiah 42:3
[2] It's worth noting that doubt is not sin, but mere temptation.
[3] Ephesians 2:8,9
[4] Mark 9:24
[5] John 7:17
[6] John 6:68

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you-nobody-too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! They'd advertise-you know.

How dreary-to be-somebody
How public-like a frog-
To tell one's name-the lifelong June
To an admiring bog.

-Emily Dickinson

I'm fond of Emily Dickinson, that strange and solitary person, whose poems often reflect her penchant for obscurity. Her desire for anonymity could be construed as humility--it should not concern us at all that people do not know us as long as we know people--but for some, a retiring nature is grounded in a deep dislike for oneself: "I'm someone to be kept out of sight."

Perhaps you're like that: wondering why God ever made you, longing to be someone else. But is it not better to be what God has chosen to make you? "For to have been thought about--born in God's thoughts-and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, most precious thing in all thinking. Is it not...?"[1]

David elaborates the same thought in the 139th Psalm, describing himself en utero as God's special creation, pondering "this awesome being that is me!"

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful (Hebrew: awesome!). I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth (his mother's womb), your eyes saw my unformed body (fetus). All the days ordained for me were written in your book (the blueprint for me) before one of them came to be.

Do you realize that you have been thought about and made by God? You are one of a kind, woven together according to a divine template, intricately "embroidered" in your mother's womb, a creation that that has no parallel in the universe. "How is it that you came to be you? God thought about you, and so you grew."

Long before you were born, you existed in God's thoughts. Long before your parents loved or neglected you, your peers admired or rejected you, your teachers, colleagues, and employers encouraged or disheartened you, you were known and loved by Love itself. God saw you and took delight in you. He gazed at what he had made and was glad. He loved it and said, "It is good!"

Someday soon, you'll love it too and will forget the self you now abhor. If you could but see yourself now as you will be one day--a lustrous, exquisitely beautiful, immortal creature--you would be stupefied and strongly tempted to fall on your knees in worship.

I think that is why, at least in part, God allowed his disciples to see his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. One early Church Father, the so-called Venerable Bede thought so: "By his loving foresight he (Jesus) prepared them (the disciples) to endure adversity bravely by allowing them to taste for a short time the contemplation of their (own) everlasting glory (beauty)."[2]

So, on ahead there is unimagined splendor, but even now, you are being beautified, "metamorphosed" from one degree of glory to the next.[3] The love of God is at work in you to transform unsightliness into the inexpressible beauty of holiness.[4]

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
For Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things [5]

The Love that fills the earth with lovely things is making you lovely. It is happening now. It will go on forever and ever, for there is no end to infinite love.


[1] George MacDonald
[2] Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa 3a, 38
[3] 2 Corinthians 3:18: Paul's exact word, metamorphoomai, means "to change the essential form or nature of something, to become entirely different" (Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).
[4] Cf., Psalm 149:4: "He (God) is beautifying the humble..."
[5] "Grace," by U2, lyrics by Bono.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Bright Field

- R.S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits y

This poem is a simple, lyrical description of a small, sun-lit field and Thomas' reaction to it. The poet notes a ray of sunshine illuminating a field, but hurries on his way and forgets all about it. In retrospect, he realizes he has passed by a field that contains a hidden treasure, worth giving up everything to possess.[1]

So, Thomas concludes, life is not hurrying on to a "receding future"-when we marry, when we have children, when we finally "make it," when we retire. Nor is life hankering after an "imagined past," for past memories are illusory. The past was never what we now remember it to be.[2]

No, life lies in the present, in little glimpses of God that we catch here and there along the way. In spite of the ugliness of our days and nights there are patches of beauty all around us, manifestations of truth and goodness.[3] These are the "thin places" in the walls of the universe where heaven is breaking through-if only, if only, we will take a moment to stop and stare; if only we have eyes to see.

What if Moses had taken a fleeting glance at the burning bush and hurried on. (He had those sheep you know, an important work to do.) Had he gone his way he would have passed up a field that concealed a measureless treasure; he would have missed an historic, life-changing encounter with God.[4]

So then, Thomas would say, life is noticing, seeing, being aware, seeing God's goodness "breaking through." It is turning aside like Moses to the miracle of something like a sun-lit field. Something small, transitory, yet symbolic of the eternity that awaits us.


[1] Cf., Jesus' parable in Matthew 13:44
[2] "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be." (I once saw those words scrawled on a stall in a men's bathroom at Stanford University back in the '60s.)
[3] Beauty is, as classical philosophers defined it, the "perceptibility (something perceived by the senses) of divine truth and goodness."
[4] Exodus 3:1-22

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Consumed by Fire

-T. S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame [1]
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire [2]
Consumed by either fire or fire.

T. S. Eliot's poetry is complex and difficult. His love of paradox, his references to obscure classical sources and to personal experiences known only to Elliot and a few of his friends make his poems almost incomprehensible, but, in my opinion, they are worth whatever effort we're willing to give them. His insights are often startling.

Here, in this section of a much longer poem,[3] Eliot insists that we have but two choices in life: "fire or fire" --the fire of purification or the fire of perdition. We are "redeemed from fire by fire," saved from the fire of judgment by God's refining flame. But--and here is the thought that grabbed my attention--in either case, God's love is the consuming fire; it is the inferno of both heaven and hell.

Here I quote Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, who, it seems, would heartily agree: "The 'fire' that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same 'fire' that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the 'fire' of God's love; the 'fire' of God Himself who is Love. 'For our God is a consuming fire.' For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the 'consuming fire' of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same 'consuming fire' will be the cause of their weeping' and their 'gnashing of teeth.' Thus it is the Church's spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God's splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light." [4]

Thus, the "fire" of hell may be but a metaphor for the torment of God's eternal love raining down on those who do not love him in return. MacDonald's old Scot, David Elginbrod, had a similar take: "Watever may be meant by the place o' meesery, depen' upo''s only anither form o' love shinin' through the fogs o' ill[5], and sae gart leuk[6] something vera different thereby."[7]

Now, I must muse a bit...

It occurs to me that this may be one reason we're called, as God's beloved children, to love our enemies and do good to them.[8] They cannot endure the awful torment of our affection. Love becomes a force they cannot bear.

There's a reflection of that "force" in the first Harry Potter book (the only one I've managed to read). Lily Potter, Harry's mother, so loved Harry that she impregnated her love into her son's skin (somewhat as God does when he pours his love into our "skin"). When Harry's opponent, Professor Quirrell, touched Harry to harm him, her love, the love that ennobled her son, shattered the professor.

Paul agrees: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."[9]


[1] In Greek mythology, the "intolerable shirt of flame" was a shirt that Hercules' wife gave him that had been poisoned by the blood of a centaur. It drove him to throw himself onto a funeral pyre. Metaphorically, it represents "a source of misfortune from which there is no escape." The only choice is to be consumed by "fire or fire."
[2] "Suspire" means "to sigh sorrowfully."
[3] From "The Four Quartettes: Little Gidding."
[4] Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith vol. 4 (Orthodox Christian Publications Center, 1981). To his quotation I must add George MacDonald's wonderful comment: "The fire of God is unlike its earthly symbol in that it is only at a distance that it burns. When we turn and draw near him it turns into comfort."
[5] fogs o' ill: our confusion about hell's "cruelty."
[6] sae gart leuk: so made like.
[7] From MacDonald's novel, David Elginbrod. Our concept of hell as a place of literal fire may be derived more from Dante than from the gospel. Material fire cannot afflict a spiritual being, so the "fires of hell" could well be symbolic. It's significant to me that our Lord's word for hell was Gehenna, not Hades, the usual word for the nether world. Gehenna was a geographical location, a valley located southwest of Jerusalem that was the refuge dump for the city. Early in Jerusalem's history it was set on fire and burned continually, producing billowing clouds of acrid smoke. To our Lord it represented a powerful symbol for hell as a "cosmic garbage dump," a place of ruined, wasted lives (Cf. Mark 9:43 et. al.).
[8] "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6.35)
[9] Romans 12:21


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