the many splendored thing Epiphany 2010
Does the fish soar too find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air,
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars,
The drift of pinions, would we harken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone, and start a wing:
‘Tis ye,’tis your estranged faces
That miss the many splendored thing.
(Frances Thompson quoted in The Soul of Christianity, by Huston Smith)
The magi are among those who did not miss the many splendored thing. That there were only three is probably a commentary on the fact that seeing the many splendored thing is rare and given to a few who have eyes to see which I think means those who see not with their eyes only but with their hearts. It was the Little Prince who said, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eye. (The Little Prince)
There are other witnesses. This poem has lost its poet but speaks anonymously of what this is all about:
I am so filled with ghosts of loveliness
That I could furbish out and populate a distant star,
So the gods could congregate to gaze, and
memorize, and duplicate.
(also quoted in The Soul of Christianity)
Annie Dillard saw it repeatedly:
Holiness is a force, and like the others can be resisted. It was given, but I didn’t want to see it, God or no God. It was if God had said, “I am here, but not as you have known me.” (A Field of Silence)
My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits?spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time?thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable. There are angels in those fields, and, I presume in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. (same as above)
We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence . . . .”seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
The magi saw it and traversed a far with gifts. The gifts themselves reveal a great deal about us and about what this story wants us to know. The gold represents material wealth, the frankincense, religious expression, the myrrh, death, all of which, strangely, hold us captive until we let them go, until we offer them to God. Perhaps the story here is not what the magi brought for Jesus to have but what they brought to be free of, recognizing in the splendor and light the only thing worth having.
Thomas Merton once noted, “God speaks to us in three places: in scripture, in our deepest selves, and in the voice of the stranger.” ( World’s Religions by Huston Smith) If we miss any one or all of these we are lost whether we know it or not which is the worse kind of lost because we can’t find what we didn’t know was missing.
It is kind of like the creature in the Never-Ending Story who, having encountered the ‘big nothing’ was left with a large hole in his chest. When Atreyu asked him if it hurt, he said, “ no, you don’t feel a thing, something is just missing.” (The never-ending story)
Ironically it is when we are most full of the things of this world that we experience most acutely that something is missing and the more we want it the less we have it. For those who see the many splendored thing it is this revelation about what is most true and most real, the freedom of love, that is most telling.
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.
(poem entitled “Gifts” by Czeslaw Milosz)
The scripture tells this story well. It says that the magi went back home by another way. They had seen the many splendored thing, the light, the salvation of the world, love incarnate. They knew instinctively not to report to that other King, King Herod, of what they had seen but this journey back was more than just a different road, but a different way of seeing the world and everything else for no one enters the light only to come back unchanged. Love has come to the world and love will save the world and nothing can stop it, not Herod, not death, not our own failure to love or our inability to see.
When we learn to look with our hearts we will see the light in everything. We will see it shining in the bread and the cup, revealing to us the eternal love of God, the suffering of Christ for our sake, the deep mercy of God’s forgiving grace, the profound possibilities for new life in every soul that comes by this way and for a new world transformed by love. And we learn to look with our heart when we surrender to the mystery and to the adventure and seek the many splendored thing no matter how far we must travel or how improbable it might be.
Our world is harsh and it is unkind and we struggle to overcome our own betrayals and disappointments and it is easy to be among those who never see the many-splendored thing or to be among those who decry the foolishness of even looking for such nonsense, hoping for what cannot be seen or that never was or that couldn’t be but if this beautiful story of Christmas and Epiphany has anything to tell us at all, surely it is this: nothing is impossible for God and God has done great things and if we look with our hearts we will find what is missing and we will know the many splendored thing and we will rise from death and we will bow to the light with gladness and bring our gifts and be free.
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
We dare not miss the many splendored thing.
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