In T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” one of the Wise Men sums up the famous trio’s trek: “A hard time we had of it,” he says, and that hardly does the journey justice.
These three pagan magicians were not like most people in their world. They were comfortable, privileged, and they left a lot behind: beautiful houses and beautiful women. Following the star seems “all folly” … until they reach Bethlehem. And being seers of a sort they saw “three trees on the low sky.”
Being wise, they knew birth and death, as Melchior (or is it Balthazar or Caspar?) says:
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
They gave up much to seek the Christ and ended up losing everything. All the old gods and all the old wisdom collapsed, as if their star had become a black hole and the gravity of the new Singularity pulled in everything that approached its event horizon.
Some people have read Eliot’s poem as an expression of pessimism, but that’s wrong, although it does register a bitter realism.
Speaking for myself, I’ve had my own hard time coming to Christ. The allure of the story – of his birth, his ministry, his Passion and Resurrection, and of the foundation of his Church – is certainly very great. The Church itself, with all if faults, has drawn me in, given me a happy home. Yet my own journey – through summer palaces and silken girls and among cursing and grumbling “camel men” (yes, the very distractions Eliot’s Magi faced!) – is a story of persistent resistance to finding the very thing I sought. I wanted love and belonging in this world, pretty much ignoring Christ’s instruction to seek the Kingdom first.
“If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own …” This is what the shocked Magi realize in their encounter with the newborn king. But … our palaces, our treasures upon the earth … our magic!
Jesus isn’t the greatest magician; he’s the end of magic.
Mind you: we are given this strange world as the medium for our temporal lives in Christ, and clearly we’re not all called to retreat from everyday life into monasticism. We must work and love and worship here and now and make the wrecked world shine, at least partly in reflecting our creativity (made as we are in the image of God), although I take Gerard Manley Hopkins’ point that:
[A]ll is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell …
A hard time we’ve had of it, and we’ve made a mess of it, yes, but this is home and we are who we are, and we ought not to belabor our failures, except, as Péguy had it, the failure to be saints. And what has kept me from saintliness is always and only my unwillingness to see my own sins. I’ve been no less a pagan than old Melchior, thinking myself a prince when I should have been a simple shepherd.
My sins! Well, that’s old news, and there’s nothing much to report, except the Good News: I was blind but now I see.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes the reactions of some of the first-ever patients to receive cataract surgery. Her blindness cured, a young girl:
visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and . . . stands speechless in front of [a] tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'” Some delight in their [new] sight and give themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes,
The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.
One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face.
This recalls the blind man at Bethsaida, Simon Peter’s hometown, who was healed by Jesus.
“Can you see anything?” our Lord asked the man.
“I can see people,” he said, “but they look like trees, walking.”
Jesus touches the man’s eyes again, and (according to Mark) the man’s “sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Sometimes the first touch is not enough, which is why we return to Mass each week or each day, and why it’s good to remember the journey of the Magi and that first Christmas, that great event horizon that shows God’s creation as it is, full of radiant comfort and joy. Once we cross over, there is no returning to the old world.