Monday, December 5, 2011

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 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 felt 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, characterized by a good deal of uncertainty, “wavering between profit and loss,” as he put it. Here, in this poem Eliot spells out his ambivalence. 

“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 its 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. Who’s 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 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. “He will not quench a smoking flax.”[1]  He is wonderfully compassionate, and infinitely patient with our misgivings. He was himself tempted in all points as we are.[2] He fully 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 service 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,” Peter asks for all of us, “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

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