By Epiphany, my street is lined with the dried-out trees and trailing tinsel of a sagging holiday. Poppers and paper crowns await the Monday garbage run. Our New Year’s resolutions are already one week old. And so, of course, as we return to the slog, are we.
But wait. It isn’t over. In fact, it has only just begun. Reality, I mean.
The Magi story comes to us filled with magic and the numinous. We revere these Persian seers for their insight into the invisible order of the cosmos that we ordinary folks, with our bird feeders and recycling schedules, lack. They’d spent years reading the signs of their own fractured and violent time. They knew that the world needed a change of consciousness, a new perception of itself and its purpose. Finding the map to this “new mind” — this new “Real” — was as treacherous and elusive as searching for the scent of a river in a desert. When they did, they carried gifts of honor and solace appropriate to one who would suffer mightily for his radical and refining vision.
What we often miss in this story, it seems to me, is the Magi themselves. Amid the foofaraw of their camels and their entourage, the alabaster jars and carved, ivory boxes, these ancients possessed the one thing that was essential to their task: Reverence.
They lived their lives believing that it is possible for mere mortals to take a few steps closer in consciousness to the vital, active force of good in creation. If they stayed awake, they would hone the capacity to recognize the Real beneath all that is deformed, false, out of harmony in man’s hearts, minds, and actions.
Reality is so hard for us. We so prefer the tinseled worlds of our own invention. Our own dramas and distractions — pet ambitions, festering (and alternately ignored or denied) neuroses — claim center stage. Do I measure up? Who is getting more glory than me? I need to win, be smarter/sexier/richer. How easy to become preoccupied with what the Zen masters called “the ten thousand things”: deadlines, the bills, the kids’ education, the difficult colleague. Worry and distraction become a mindset, a way of life. In short order, we find ourselves out of touch with Reality. Even when seated in front of the good china and silver lifting a toast to the New Year, we are just going through the motions.
A friend I’ll call Peter recently had his own authentic Reality show. Bright and hard-working, Peter was blessed with opportunities at a young age. He worked on Wall Street, and later moved on to become the principal in a small financial services company. When that didn’t survive an aggressive wave of consolidation, he became president of a prestigious job-training program. At some point, he ran into conflict with his board, but there was another position waiting. He designed innovative programs, won national awards. But in an unexpected, final, pirouette, Peter was fired.
He struggled for a time as a consultant, then found himself working at Starbuck’s. The new man on the team, this meant working split shifts, weekends, and holidays. He and his wife sold their house and moved into an apartment. Their social set vanished. Soon all that was left were his dogs and a weekly paycheck for making lattes for the people who once worked for him.
Reality is hard for us.
A famous Japanese poem by Masahide became Peter’s mantra:
Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon
Perhaps the Magi were men whose homes, too, had figuratively burned. Or perhaps they knew what people who work in mission churches, among the homeless, and the forgotten seem to know. The Real almost always comes in a time and place and in a form that is least expected. When it does, it feels like the splitting open of the universe, sweeping us into an awareness of God that leaves us utterly changed.
“My ego had gotten in my way,” Peter told me recently. “I’d stopped listening. The only thing I was focused on was my need to be successful.”
Peter made coffee, read, and attended Mass. He slowly and painfully dismantled his pride. He waited and watched. One day, the phone rang. It was as if someone had turned on a light in his life. He saw a path being offered him. More important, it was a path that would allow him to bring his gifts to a place where they were most needed. He would touch the Real.
This past Christmas was his first one in his new job, coordinating upwards of 15,000 volunteers to serve the hungry in his city. No fancy titles, no tinsel and champagne holiday parties, no large bonuses. On Christmas Day, he went to Mass, did some yoga, and served plates of food.
And this is just the way he wants it.
The Magi bore witness to the truth that the divine dwells in the life in time, in the humblest of flesh. They were men who, as the story goes, had to return home by a different route, because the way by which they had come was no longer adequate.