“No longer at ease here”

“No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” — Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, 1481).

Three days before the 2016 election, I posted The Top Ten Reasons To Stop Trump Now. All of them, sadly, turned out to be valid forecasts, but three of them remain especially worrying over the next two weeks:

Nuclear threat      Giving control of the world’s most powerful military, not to mention the nuclear codes, to an emotional toddler is clearly insane.

Fascism       Believe me. I alone can make America great. Everyone else is stupid. Trump is part of a worldwide erosion of democracy by a resurgent authoritarianism. Fear and hate have made many sell their souls to naked power. When fascism spread in 1930’s Europe, Americans were confident that “it can’t happen here.” Now we aren’t so sure.

Hatred     Racism, bigotry, misogyny, bullying, scapegoating and political violence have been making a shocking comeback, with Trump as their enthusiastic cheerleader. He has endorsed and normalized the most vile sins of the American shadow. God help us should he and his alt-right thugs and cronies ever come to power.

I wrote my warning on November 3, 2016. I wish I’d been wrong.

After yesterday’s insurrection, many are calling for the immediate removal of the President from power, and I add my voice to theirs. His seditious incitement of a coup may have been ridiculously futile, but it cannot be indulged as another childish tantrum. It was both physically dangerous and symbolically toxic. It will take our country a long time to live it down.

Breaking the law and shaming his country should be reason enough for immediate removal. But we should also be genuinely worried about the dangerous unpredictability of a cornered rat. He still controls the nuclear codes. He is still an unstable sociopath, a clear and present danger to America. As a Republican congressman put it today in calling for Trump’s removal, we need “to ensure the next few weeks are safe for the American people, and that we have a sane captain on the ship.”

One way or another, Trump will exit, but the venom that produced him will remain in our system for a long time to come. The alternative universes of social media continue to erode the very notion of a Union. It’s now all too easy to secede from consensual reality. Millions upon millions are joining delusional confederacies of bitterness and hate. And unprincipled, power-hungry cynics like Senators Josh Hawley (educated at Stanford and Yale) and Ted Cruz ( Princeton and Harvard) will continue to harvest money and votes from the killing fields of ignorance and bigotry.

For Christians, the defilement of the Capitol also tainted the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the manifestation, or revealing, of Christ’s light to the whole wide world. The Episcopal Collect for the Epiphany prays for the Beatific Vision: “Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.” Sadly, what the world beheld on Epiphany was not the Light of the world, but an eruption of darkness from the vilest murk of the American id.

As with any healing, you can’t begin treatment until you get a diagnosis. Could yesterday’s “epiphany,” revealing the seriousness of our affliction, be the beginning of a cure? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic who knows the sacred feasts, expressed this hope. “Let us pray,” she said, “that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”

The bizarre coincidence of the insurrection with the culminating celebration of the Nativity calls to mind the famous ending of William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming:”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

All of us who were transfixed by the slouching horror on our screens yesterday feel the resonance of Yeats’ disturbing image. But my preferred poem for the day would be T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” a first-person account of the original Bethlehem Epiphany. Like every pilgrim, the speaker has tales to tell about the hardships of the quest. However, about the moment of revelation—beholding the Incarnate God face to face—he is curiously reticent, as though it would diminish the experience to put it into words.

Once he returns home, with time to reflect, the Magus finds himself “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods.” Having looked divine Love in the face, he finds a world without that love to be less than “satisfactory.” No longer able to settle for anything less than what he glimpsed in the Bethlehem stable, he finds himself “no longer at ease.” The journey to the Divine birth becomes for him a kind of death, a perishing of his old world and his old self.

In the light of the Epiphany—the revealing of ultimate truth—the Magus is transformed. He will never be the same. Dare we say the same about yesterday’s terrible “epiphany”? Has seeing our own darkness face to face shaken us to the core? Has it shocked us into renouncing its terrible sway? If we suddenly find ourselves “no longer at ease here,” thanks be to God! Our journey toward the Dawn can begin at last.

Epiphanies in the Temples of Wonder

Grand Teton National Park, Winter 1979 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

We have seen the Creator as Light and the Spirit as Light,
guiding with light the whole creation.

–– Byzantine matins, Feast of the Transfiguration

One senses something more than the natural…What these paintings seem to depict is not so much discrete things – trees, fields, figures, buildings – shown in particular configurations – but something that subsumes or, in potentiality, contains them.

 ––Museum label for a George Inness survey at the San Diego Museum of Art (2004)

 

I took my photograph of wintry pines forty years ago while cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. I had stopped to contemplate the grove with its sense of mysterious depth, all those vertical lines receding into an infinity my eye could not penetrate. I felt the pull of whatever lies behind the components of the visible: the “something that subsumes or contains them.” It seemed an intimation of whatever lies beyond the self and its constructions.

The photograph became my Christmas card that year, with these words written on the back:

Shhh!
it comes
it goes
put yourself in its path
and wait

In this season of Epiphany (“manifestation”), we are invited to consider the possibility that the Transcendent desires to be seen. And when we are receptively attentive––and unhurriedly patient––we may discover the world to be a theater of divine showings and human awakenings.

Even in a world of “dull” and “prosaic” facts, said Emerson in an 1838 lecture, “the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts, then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[i]

Every year, every day, every hour of our lives offers its epiphanies. Leafing through old journals for some memorable examples of my own, I came across some passages from a European grand tour in the 1970s, a few years before I photographed the snowy Teton pines. My older self might want to tame some of the exuberant excess in the writing, but I still recognize, and do not regret, the intensity of that young man’s wonder.

An epiphany has been called “a moment when . .. consciousness finds itself flooded, or breathed into, or simply filled by a force . . . that comes from outside the self and is incorporated into the soul of the recipient.”[ii] My first direct encounter with the collection of J. M. W. Turner paintings in London’s Tate Gallery felt like that. This is how I wrote it down at the time:

Having seen most Turners only in reproduction, or in the vivid descriptions of [19th century critic] John Ruskin, I was not fully prepared for the ecstasy, the overwhelming somatic experience, of viewing the actual paintings. The three large Turner galleries were a temple of light, each framed canvas a window into a universe of radiant splendor. The early paintings showed his classical lineage, the formal narratives, but it was not long before his clear shapes began to waver and blur in the universal solvent of a liquid light. It was not a failure of drawing but the birth of new vision.

 Some of his sunsets and storms engulf recognizable forms, almost to the point of abstraction, yet they remain anchored in real perception, aspects of the created world which registered in the artist’s here and now. In “Interior at Petworth,” golden light, turbulent and thick, pours through the windows like water from a burst dam, tearing through the staid Victorian inner space to submerge everything in its radiance. How did Turner come to see a world so alive with animating energies? Was this light within his mind, leaving the room essentially untouched, or did he see something inherent in the physical world, a subversive brilliance operating outside the range of mortal sight?[iii]

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior at Petworth” (1837)

A week later, I walked through the doors of la belle cathédrale de Chartres into another epiphany:

The moment of entrance flooded me with intense emotion. I knew it would be beautiful, but I was unprepared for the way the soaring interior would catch me up in a such a physical way, and ravish my virgin eyes with the vivid, fantastic hues of medieval glass, floating islands of magic color in a sea of smoky shadows.

My eyes filled with tears. Never before had a building made me weep. It was that sense of perfection I have found more often in nature, the homecoming when one arrives at the perfect moment, the perfect place, where the lack that drives our stories is satisfied, every desire met.

I drifted around the cathedral as in a dream. There were no lights on at first, and the upward-thrusting shafts and vaults disappeared, like prayer, into a realm beyond our sight. The eloquent profusion of Gothic lines, the underlying mind that held vast forces in balance, subduing the play of gravity and architecture into a state of arrested serenity, was everywhere implied, but the complexity outran the mind’s descriptive grasp. Chartres invites not analysis, but worship. In every direction, the space receded into vague twilights. The effect was neither disorienting nor alarming, but enfolding, a mothering womb rather than annihilating tomb. Theotokos, the Divine Mother, was not only at the heart of the north rose window. She was the very space in which we moved.

The kaleidescopic windows seemed suspended, weightless, free floating in the darkness, jeweled messengers uttering angelic phrases directly to the soul, unclothed by human words. The north rose window, like Dante’s vision of the heavenly dance, held me rapt for the longest time. What kind of imagination had spread such rich fare before us? And if we feasted on such visions, how would we be changed?[iv]

North rose window, Chartres cathedral

 

 

[i] From “School,” a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Boston on Dec. 19, 1838.

[ii] Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 14.

[iii] Personal journal (April 29, 1976).

[iv] Ibid. (May 4, 1976)

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