"It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or craft. Instant success is the order of the day; 'I want it now!' I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines. Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn't start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value." (May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude, W W Norton, 1973, 15.)

Reflection on the Feast of Epiphany, 6 January 2019

By Michael Whelan SM
JGospel

Living is epiphanic

Our English word, Epiphany, has its roots in the Greek verb, phainein meaning ‘to show’ or ‘to appear’ or ‘to be seen’. The English word ‘phenomenon’ shares the same roots. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), describes that branch of philosophy known as Phenomenology, as the process whereby we endeavour to ‘let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’ (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row, 1962, 58).

With the foregoing in mind, we may be better placed to approach the people, events and things of our daily lives with more respect, with an increased capacity to hear what is actually going on, with the prospect of being struck by awe at what comes to light when we refrain from imposing our assumptions, prejudices, idealizations and stereotypes. These are typically born of anxiety and fear and contribute to a thicket of unreality that prevents us from experiencing and affirming what is.

Both Christian spirituality and the Christian life itself, in this sense, are pre-eminently phenomenological. That is, when rightly pursued, they endeavour to let the Divine Life ‘which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’ in and through the people, events and things of our days.

Thomas Merton expressed beautifully this profound and ultimately incomprehensible thought in a letter of 21 August 1967. He wrote: “We exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany” (“A Letter on the Contemplative Life” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master – The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S Cunningham, Paulist Press, 1992, 425). What a difference it would make if we lived life as epiphany? The “three wise men” of today’s Gospel – see Matthew 2:1-12 – were able to see what was there at Bethlehem because they had the disposition to ‘let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’. Herod, on the contrary, had no such disposition. Where the wise men saw promise, Herod saw threat.

Can we learn anything from this contrast between the wise men and Herod? Are we disposed to people in such a way that we are able to ‘let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’? What gets in the way? When we are dealing with the mundane events and things of daily life – especially the really difficult situations – are we able to ‘let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’? What gets in the way?