Opening Reading: 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 ways 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.
Sermon: Epiphanies, Large and Small (Extra Large also available)
Feast of the Epiphany…12 days after Christmas; January 6, which is the source of the song,
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!
The church’s reference to the Epiphany referred to the Magi’s recognition of the Divine in Jesus – or Jesus as “Divine.”
The Unitarian version of the epiphany is the recognition of a Divine spark in every person – or as the Natural World imbued with Sacredness.
An epiphany is a sudden insight – a moment when you make some connection with an idea and you say something like “It speaks to me,” or, “I get it!” We feast, spiritually, on our epiphanies.
We all have epiphanies from time to time; they happen, for example, when we see some truth behind the story; poem; music; usually it’s a familiar poem or an old story or a well-worn piece of music and we have the sense of seeing it ‘as if for the first time.’
Most epiphanies are small and we don’t even mention them to anyone but ourselves.
The medium sized epiphanies need to be shared, so we tell someone about the new insight.
Size large comes with a ‘wow,’ as if we’ve been bowled over by it, and we know right away that we can’t express it in words.
One size doesn’t fit all. There’s even an extra large size. The extra large epiphany is what caused someone to say, “I’m not a human being having a spiritual experience, I’m a spiritual being having a human experience.”
One of the great things about the spiritual aspect of this human experience is the fresh insights that come to us from time to time; simple experiences when we realize that we’ve just learned something new; or when we feel like we understand something we’ve never really understood.
I remember such an experience in second year algebra guided by a patient teacher.
We’re all learners, and everything we learn brings a sense of satisfaction. For most people that sense of satisfaction has no conscious connection to religion, as such, or to the spiritual aspect of life. But for me it’s the essence of religion and spirituality – religion, in a generic sense, is all about making ‘connections,’ and thereby feeling a sense of being connected, as opposed to feeling isolated…separate.
That’s why poetry became so important in my personal life and why I bring it into my professional life.
Take a poem like John Ciardi’s White Heron:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Huston Smith, who writes so effectively on the world’s religions, used this poem to close a wonderful collection of essays in a book he titled, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind. I remember reading it for the first time and I had a size large epiphany. Something in me said, “Yes! It’s all about those little moments when, for some reason, you find yourself paying attention in a different way and seeing something like a graceful white bird lifting itself off the ground and it takes your breath away.
Then there’s the medium sized epiphany in the poem about a duck; a simple little poem about a simple little duck:
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.
The duck is – or appears to us, at least – to be in perfect harmony with his environment: he’s connected. Which is why, as the poet puts it, he’s ‘got religion.’
An example of an extra large size epiphany is the break through in Charles Darwin’s insight about natural selection during The Voyage of the Beagle. Some epiphanies require preparation, and he was prepared.
In his response to Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote:
DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy…I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well…I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.”
He went on to say, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging…I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.” R.W. EMERSON
I thought of Emerson’s letter as connected to these comments on epiphanies especially because of the line where he says, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”
Some epiphanies come because of preparation – when the student is ready the teacher arrives.
When I read Stanley Kunitz’s wonderful poem The Layers for the first time I was ready. It hit home so directly I took it on a couple of walks at Compo and made it my own:
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
This poem arrived just in the nick of time for me; just when I realized in the depths of my being that I have had the great privilege of sharing in so many lives. Every one of the lives I’ve shared has had an impact on me – some have had a deep, life-altering impact…like a big epiphany.
“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own.”
It’s a simple statement embodying a deep truth.
“I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections.” We’re born into a family, or adopted by one, and we become identified with them. If we’re fortunate, we feel loved, nurtured and appreciated for the love and nurture we’ve been able to give in return. I’ve been around long enough to know that it doesn’t always work that way.
We all ‘make ourselves a tribe out of our true affections.’ We make connections, and some result in such a profound change in us that we mark our lives as ‘before and after’ each of them.
The tribe gets scattered, but something stays with us and continues to nurture, continues to influence, and helps us to learn to ‘live in the layers and not on the litter.’
The litter is the debris left after a difficult time and, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves living in the litter – the regrets, unable to move beyond mistakes we’ve made. There’s a line in a Beatle’s song: “I said something wrong now I long for yesterday…suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be…” Litter.
The layers are the chapters of our lives…our childhood and youth, young adulthood, early career, and possibly partnering and parenting and empty-nesting and growing older and living fully in that final chapter with a deep sense of appreciation for all that has been, and not worrying over what’s to come after this human experience.
I don’t know if the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written, but I do know that I ‘lack the art to decipher it.’ What about you?
I’ve had lots of little epiphanies listening to songs – poems put to music, which allows the familiar words to be delivered straight to the heart, or to the right side of the brain, skipping right past the analytical part of the brain which can tyrannize us with its demands for logic, its insistence on the rational.
Mary Oliver has done it for me several times, so I’ll close with two: the first is her poem titled Messenger, a size large epiphany:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
We’ll close with Mary Oliver’s wonderful summary of ‘feasting on the epiphanies.’ She calls this poem Praying, and she rolled my deepest feelings about prayer into a wonderful little ball:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
May the New Year be filled with epiphanies, small, medium, large…and maybe even an extra large or two.