Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘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.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Two hours in heaven

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Belief is hard – at least when you dwell within the bubble of secular modernity, where reality seems to function well enough without invoking divinity as a causal mechanism. As long as there is money in the bank and a storm hasn’t knocked down the local power lines, as long as I am healthy and not spending any time in foxholes, it might slip my mind that life is a gift rather than a possession. God doesn’t make it any easier by being invisible or in disguise, and preferring to be subtle when it comes to manifesting presence.

In The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition, William Countryman sees the ebb and flow of divine presence as “the central rhythm of Anglican spirituality.” Like the elusive behavior of waves and particles, the Holy seems to leap unpredictably between available and unavailable, known and unknown, intimate and distant, withheld and given. This can be hard on believers.

Oh that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossom, hung
Discontented.

– George Herbert (“Denial”)

There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

– R. S. Thomas (“In Church”)

When Herbert or Thomas felt God’s absence, they still remained in relationship with divinity. They missed its nearness. They longed for an intimacy lost. For the totally secularized, God is not merely absent. God is not even missed. The sense of longing inherent to the human condition has been transferred to more tangible, less ultimate objects. For those who do not reside within the practices and discourses of a faith community, is a relationship with the transcendent recoverable? The arts have been proposed as a substitute for religion. But instead of replacing God, the arts often seem to incarnate the divine, even for those who would never think to describe their experience theologically.

In A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit, Anthony Monti cites Sir Thomas Browne on the way music restores us to a spiritual mode of awareness:

There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ear of God.[i]

In more contemporary language, Frank Burch Brown writes that the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor “so shines and overflows with the musical manifestation of divine plenitude that in the experience of many a listener heaven and earth seem to converge, revealing the ultimate reality of their ecstatic union/communion.” [ii]

Image Journal, an exquisitely produced quarterly exploring the intersection of “art, faith and mystery,” employs both beauty and thought to counter the modernist dogma of belief’s imminent extinction. And at last weekend’s Seattle concert in celebration of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I experienced the “musical manifestation of divine plenitude.” For two glorious hours, four choirs and a reader of poems pushed back the veil of doubt and distance so that a fortunate crowd of listeners could dwell – effortlessly, ecstatically – in the radiance of holy presence.

The design of the program had a litugical structure. There were seven sections – a sacred number – conducting us through the stages of spiritual journey: Cloud of Unknowing, After Paradise, The Contemplative Life, Longing for the Messiah, Mothering God, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and From Darkness into Light. Each section’s theme was introduced by a contemporary poem wrestling with the presence/absence of what Denise Levertov calls “the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable.” [iii] And each poem was followed by a triptych of choral pieces from medieval to modern, from Hildegard and Palestrina to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble, the Medieval Women’s Choir, and the Women of St. James Schola took turns lifting their voices in the resonant space of St. James Cathedral.

Sometimes the presence entered gently, as in the lyric by Jeanne Murray Walker: “Listen! Already God descends, waking us, / with his new breath, from sleep, / … like a mother.” [iv] Sometimes it clapped like thunder, as when the supplicating harmonies of Tavener’s “God is with us” were met with the sudden roar of the organ in heaven’s unambiguous reply.

The most stunning moment for me came at the end of James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The triumphant text – “Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of All” – started quietly with the sopranos, joined by the basses rumbling a rhythmic plainsong like breaking waves. The interplay of high and low, feminine and masculine, was punctuated by generous silences, allowing us to savor the fading reverberations. Then a single soprano began to rise above the other voices, with melismatic ornaments resembling the grace notes of Celtic song. Alleluia, she sang, over and over, her voice rising in a vocal mimesis of the ascending Christ. The other singers fell away as she soared on: Alleluia! Alleluia! And then, reaching a high B that seemed beyond the reach of mortals, she sang “All-le – “, but instead of the final syllables, there was sudden silence, as if she had vanished into eternity before the word could be finished.

In such an atmosphere, it was unbelief that became impossible. No more weeping by the rivers of exile, no hiding of faces from an alien Creator, no wandering in the wilderness of doubt and loss. We were home at last. God was not a dubious idea, but an immediate experience.

Alas, we are never permitted to linger long around the throne of presence. Once the vision fades, we must go forth to redeem the time being from insignificance.[v] But those two blessed hours provided a rich and lasting sustenance for those of us who continue along the pilgrim way.

[i] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003) 121

[ii] Ibid., 122

[iii] Denise Levertov, “Sanctus,” from concert program

[iv] Jeanne Murray Walker, “And He Shall Dwell With Them,” from concert program

[v] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976) 308