Western Christians celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. It marks the arrival of the three Wise Guys in Bethlehem, who came all the way from the East, following a star, in search of the child they believed was born to be king of the Jews. As kids, much of what we learned about the Nativity story, including the appearance of the Three Kings in Bethlehem, came from having to sing carols. This is a good way to muddle a child’s mind. Am I really the only one who thought that after a silent and holy night we would all sleep in heavenly peas?
About the Kings we learned that they followed the “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright”. Of themselves, in this carol, they say that, “we three kings from Orie and Tar, bearing gifts, we traveled so far.” How come two towns needed three kings? And what gave them the idea that frankincense–or even worse: myrrh–would be a hit at a baby shower? No matter. The point, of course, is that the Wise Guys’ visit made the locals, including Mary and Joseph, see the infant through a different lens. Here was the divine mingled with the profane. An epiphany!
We want to live lives of insight and meaning. But like all wonders, an epiphany will come, if at all, on its own terms. Just as one cannot heal a wounded heart by dint of will, or rush the time it takes a bad haircut to grow out, it is not possible to conjure an epiphany. The Three Kings followed the beacon, with no real promise that they would find what they sought. The best you can do is watch and be ready. Here are a few tactics you may employ to up your chances:
Reliquary of the Three Kings
1. Travel. When you transport yourself into an unfamiliar culture and environ, you will find it easier to abandon the silly notion that all of life is just as you perceive it. You might even start your travels by visiting the spectacular Cathedral of Cologne. It just so happens that the bones of the very Wise Men that visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem have found thier way to eternal rest right here in Germany. Improbable? You bet. Legends always are. But that should not stop you from joining thousands of pilgrims who visit this breathtaking edifice hoping for their own epiphany.
2. Do nothing. Remember when a parent would call out, “what are you doing?” And, after a split second of consideration, you would reply, “nothing.” Make up for all this prevaricating by taking some time each week to just sit and actually do nothing. Sit in a chair, lie on the couch. Twenty minutes. No TV, no laptop, no book. Pretty soon that ceaseless prattle in your head will still. Even if you experience no epiphany, you have wasted no more time than you would have playing endless rounds of free-cell solitaire.
3. Read. Well, keep reading these little essays, for sure. But read the good stuff, too. There is a lot to choose from. Do not worry that you need to immerse yourself in the likes of Plato or Aristotle. Give The Stone a try. It is a thoughtful blog written by contemporary philosophers and ably edited by Simon Critchley.
An epiphany is a moment when we understand something in a new way. When we are moved to say, I see! And you do. Here’s what Annie Dillard says about seeing:
I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.