pilgrimage & retreat

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

I’d signed up for a retreat at the Loyola Jesuit Center over Advent, which was postponed to January. Journey of the Magi, a day-long retreat to read and meditate on the poem of the same name by T.S. Elliot. Though I had been looking forward to the Advent retreat to prepare for Christmas, this ultimately felt better suited to the time period described in the poem itself—the dead of winter.

It’s not an easy journey for the magi, as explored in the poem. It’s the “worst time of the year,” a long trek from the East across the desert. Even their arrival is hard, finding Jesus in at night in a place that isn’t elaborate, probably not even recognizable as his home. And when they return home, they don’t recognize their own land—though it’s the same as before, they see the grit more clearly now that they’ve encountered God.

There was much discussion in our group about the double meaning: the physical and spiritual journey. It was compared to conversion, not something many in the group had experienced. But I understood. After the magi go home, they wish for death. They compare their own people to foreigners. After conversion, you ache not to physically die, but to be reborn into something new. You don’t recognize the people you’re close to, because they haven’t experienced what you experienced.

There was a clear shift from pre- to post-Confirmation life. I developed new interests. I talked about faith more, and stepped away from things that no longer lined up with that. People associated with those things stepped away, too, which is harder to accept. They’re not bad people. I’m still friendly with them, when we talk. But after spending a day contemplating this poem and its metaphors, I started to understand that we’re not friends. I hadn’t understood that. There are people who just disappear; they move away, or got married, or simply no longer share the same interests. When I joined the Church, I developed different interests, too. I was the one who started to disappear.

But after that “death” is a rebirth. The poem doesn’t talk about that part. It ends with the magi simply wishing for a separation from their own life. But after encountering Jesus, a new life begins. In a sense, I expected that to happen immediately after entering the Church. I’d be filled with the Spirit, joyful for life itself, eager to follow God’s plans. It didn’t happen. Instead, I spent a few months wayward. I had no one to talk to about my new life, because they didn’t care to talk about God, let alone the Church. I didn’t understand that rebirth has to begin with death.

What does that rebirth really look like? I don’t know, because I haven’t allowed myself to die. I didn’t know what I was supposed to die from; I didn’t think it would be something like friendships or social groups. But you can’t be reborn if you’re not willing to let go. I’ve been straddling my old and new lives, clinging to a past that I no longer agree with. Calling people friends who I no longer connect with. It’s time to let go. I’ve been called to a new life, but I haven’t been living it. I don’t know what this new life entails. I don’t know what God is asking of me, or where He’s going to send me. But I’m certainly not going to figure it out if I keep looking backward.