26 April 2008

Magi, Him, and us

"A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The was deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter."
T.S. Eliot starts by speaking the words of Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th Century divine, who spoke on the dangers the Magi faced, in his Nativity Sermon in 1622. Eliot, in his middle age, needed a recluse from his hardship, confusion, and drudgery. He converted to Christianity, and confirmed his catholic faith in the Church of England in 1927. 'Journey of the Magi' is a dramatic monologue by a Magus describing his journey to see the Birth of Christ, but the words delve deeper on a spiritual journey that is the need of every human. After the hardship and rumination, Eliot claims Christianity offered him a journey to answers, a spiritual calling, and something that transformed his life.
Journeys that transform lives, callings that direct people on various paths, can never be explained to the larger reality. It is a personal experience. These journeys involve an eventful path of difficulties and conflicts. Eliot known for his obscure imagery details the Magi's hardship, yet again based on Andrewe's sermons. Journey of the Magi is the story of the three kings of Orient, believed in legends to be Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar.
The lack of logic, and pure spiritual absorption, reeks in the fact that they set out in the dead of winter. The camels, vehicles of the desert, traveled on their soft hoofs through thick snow. The calling was only powerful enough to drag along the three kings, who are believed to have brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh. (According to Mathew 2:1-12 2: 1–12, the magi are not specified as three, but as the first Gentiles to believe in Christ were venerated as saints in the Middle Ages.)
The camel men could not be torn apart from their material desires and homes. They ran back to civilization, to their sexual pleasures, and intoxicating habits.
"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"
Even the Magi, still clouded by their desires, regretted going to far from their palaces, especially not knowing if what they were heading towards was a fruitful calling. Practical rationality always tries to defeat instinct, passion, and a drive towards misty goals. Here, Eliot hands out an interpretation of life. The mind will constantly create conflicts of two faces, but sometimes the pathless goal is the right calling; like seeking truth, which is always a pathless land.Abandoned by their camel men and camels, torn away from their comforts, and stuck in the middle of winter, their journey is not understood by anyone. The dramatic monologue is delivered with the undertone that even years after the journey, it cannot be explained in any way that could be understood. Understanding is personal, justification is personal. Spirituality is personal. God is personal.
Eliot's vivid description of their loneliness and physical hardships are a symbol of their psychological turmoil. This turmoil is owned by anyone who asks questions, and searches endlessly, with no path or maps, just some single light guiding her (Star of Bethlehem), not knowing within the question lays the answer, and the significance lies not in the answer, but the process of asking questions.
In the second stanza, Eliot sinks into his comfort zone - symbolism. It is highly metaphorical and requires a deep understanding of biblical imagery. After experiencing the hostility in cities and villages, the magi travel in the dark (no light of understanding). They reach a temperate valley, a symbol of the birth of spring, birth of something new and blossoming, and the coming of God. They pass a water-mill beating the darkness signifying that paganism, idol worship, and magic will be beaten to ground by the New Spirituality. The three trees on the low sky is a symbol of the crucifixion day, when three different men were put on crosses on Calvary; Jesus, the compassionate son of God dying for the sins of humankind, the stubborn thief who even considers Jesus as a man of magic and trickery, and the thief who understands his sins and confesses to be redeemed of it to reach God. The old white horse galloping on the fields is the Holy Spirit who spoke of the gifts of humankind, and the second coming of Christ as in the Book of Revelations.
The Magi, eventually, reach a tavern (an inn/bar) with vine leaves on the lintel, interpreted as the ancient Jewish custom of hanging vine leaves to announce the birth of a child. Guided by the star they assume they have reached the place and enter the inn in triumph, but all they find are intoxicated sinners.
"Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins"
The six hands are those of the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ seamless cloak and also a mark of Judas’ betrayal. The inn is filled with men drunk in their pleasures and slurring in intoxicated trances. They are the people with empty wine-skins, those bodies with no souls into which no new life can be poured.
The most momentous ingredient of this poem is Eliot’s interpretation of Birth (physical and spiritual) and Death (physical and spiritual). Christ was born in a manger, well among the lower class of the society. Seeing this, the magi are merely ‘satisfied’. All the prophecies lie fulfilled, making the magi those of an alien kind, and truth lies asleep in a hay crib, in a lowly stable. They are dumbstruck by God’s plan. They have only seen the births and death, purely physically manifested, that all of human race has seen and will continue to see. This Birth of Christ creates a Death.
The poem is not a physical account of the magi’s journey. It is indeed written in a confused chronology, of how an aged magus’ memory may aid him. It is the agony and transformation that each magus went through when all their beliefs were put to torturous death. Christ awakened the birth of the Kingdom of God. His teachings broke the vertical hierarchy and made everyone a person of God, a vessel of God. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
“This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?... this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death”
Old ritualistic manners of clutching to one’s household gods were murdered by this Birth. The beliefs that the kings had laid all their life and growth on seemed to be buried and hanged. Witnessing the birth, and the death of their systems, the moment was agonizing. Under the Kingdom of God, when the return to palaces, their kingdoms seemed of an alien race and system. Everything they lay their cards on in their kingdoms seems untrue, unfamiliar, and lacks the understanding of God.
The magus (Eliot) still ardently hopes for another death, large enough to happen in every human’s conscience. This is the spiritual death of prejudices, sins, rituals, ignorance, materialism, discrimination, violence, and resentment that dies deeply rooted in human-made systems. Change is the only goal one must await in a quest.
Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi#cite_note-9 http://itech.fgcu.edu/faculty/wohlpart/alra/eliot.htm#biography http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/w/e/wethree.htm http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/291.html http://mariannedorman.homestead.com/Star.html

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