Daily Decoration: the magi

Playmobil figures representing the three kings plus camel surveying a scene dominated by a cardboard shoebox

So here we are. I feel more kinship with the Magi than with anybody else in the nativity set: you spend a long, long time getting anywhere, and you go to the wrong place, and then you finally get there and you’re only just in time, everyone else has packed up and gone home, and you get maybe a day before you get put back in your box and put away. And then you do the whole thing again next year. (I wrote a poem about that a few years ago.)

I was thinking this evening about the gifts that the Magi bring: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the primary school nativity plays I participated in they were represented by cardboard boxes covered in shiny paper. It doesn’t go very far in conveying the weight and gleam of gold, the heavy scent of myrrh or frankincense; it doesn’t do much more than the plastic containers the Playmobil figures are carrying.

This Advent I – along with much of the rest of the Church of England, no doubt – read Music of Eternity, a curated and adapted collection of writing by Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth century mystic. I found it, by turns, thought-provoking, gently challenging, and really quite difficult, and at some point it managed to press some buttons which then stayed pressed all the way through Christmas. I’m not sure it was even the fault of the book; it just managed to convey to me the impression that there is a right way and there is a wrong way, and you, not doing it the right way, are doing it the wrong way. And that took me back to all the churches that have not been the right church for me, but which managed to convey me that I was doing it wrong. Whatever it was.

Evelyn Underhill talks a lot about being self-oblivious and, while I know in my head what she was getting at, me attempting to be self-oblivious summons a persona who really shouldn’t be running the show. (The key word here is, of course, attempting, but this was the kind of response that I observed myself having.) She ran it from when I was about fourteen up until my late twenties, and it was very tiring being her. She was always trying to fit in, she was always trying to be right. She was trying to please, she was trying to protect, but the only way she knew how to protect was to suppress (herself and others) and she did as much damaging suppressing as she would have done by leaving people unprotected. And she ran on weapons grade, grudging, effort. She was trying. She really was trying. She was very trying.

One of the most humbling and delightful discoveries of the last decade has been that God isn’t at all interested in her. God is interested in me. And other people have seen through her to me, and liked me. One of the things that I discovered when I stopped putting all my energy into being her was that other people also had trouble with not being XYZ enough, whatever XYZ was for them, and actually admitting to being human and having trouble with stuff was a far better way to make friends than whatever it was I’d been trying before.

The trouble is that when this persona gets hold of an idea like being self-oblivious as something that is desirable to be, and sees the current-me, who has a much better idea of who she is, well, there’s trouble. Because I can’t be doing with her yelling you’re doing it wrong!!!! at me all the time, I haven’t been doing much at all. And probably I should have a conversation with her and see if she wouldn’t rather be off-duty with a pile of comics and a glass of lemonade, because she shouldn’t have had to be on duty all those years, that wasn’t fair, but I’ve only just recognised her modus operandi.

Anyway, she quietened down this evening, maybe just because I went to church. Epiphany. We got there. Just in time. (Metaphorically, that is. Literally I had five minutes to spare.) And I thought about how tactile, how sensory, the gifts of the Magi were. How very material the Incarnation is. That, while I can conceive of a reality that is so real that compared to it flesh and blood is plastic and gold and myrrh are cardboard boxes, I can only get there through this reality. The way in for me is through who I am and through what is there.

Sunday, 5pm, 3rd January

I was reading about the Herschels:

Caroline, out on the lawn, catching comets by the tail;

and William, stretching a ruler from star to star.


Across the street, my neighbour

climbed a ladder and gathered an armful of light,

wound round his elbow on invisible thread.


(Viewed with attention, like the Herschels’,

the Pleiades become a sisterhood

more inclusive than first thought.)


To see this for myself, I’d have to go out

in the dark garden, unafraid

of what I might learn, of what might

disrupt my preconceptions, require me

to expand my imagination,

and watch, and wait.

The Journey

Kings and camel from Playmobil nativity set

Crevasse            and chasm,         piano,        bookshelf,        mantel: we set off
when all the rest have got there, go the long way round,
know nothing of what draws us save that far faint blaze
of glory glimpsed across vast empty skies. We saw,
and set out on a path long known, unprecedented,
traced our own steps; idled, forgotten,

inched forward;

travelled

in fits

and starts;

one last unlikely leap compelled us, just in time. To see,
learn what we had forgotten, remember what we longed for.
We have been here before, but never quite like this –

– For one brief day we stand before eternity,
knowing at last, and seeing, seen and known,
this moment not to be clung to, lost in its attainment –

– Journey done, we wait once more in darkness. Next time
we’ll start again from the beginning, knowing
the way to be long, fulfilment fleeting,
but worth the travel, travail, this time, next time,
for all time. Beyond time.