New Year Resolutions for 2015 – letting go of alien gods – TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

As with most end-of-year seasons with “top 10 lists” and retrospectives of “the best” and “the worst” lists I am doing my reflection on what I am bringing into the new year (and hopefully leaving behind).  As I often do at Christmas time, I begin reflecting on what the new year will hold by reflecting on poetry and essays that have inspired and challenged me through the years. One favorite poem is TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.  It is a stark, beautiful poem that Eliot supposedly began thinking about as an undergraduate and then published in 1927.  Yet nearly 100 years later it still holds so much power even today.  I love its use of the Magi from the East searching for truth who leave behind their “summer palaces on slopes” with “silken girls bringing sherbet” as place holders for the modern condition: people surrounded by so many distractions and abundance yet still lacking contentment since we are perpetually searching for something deeper than the bland surface-deep life we find ourselves in.  As the Magi eventually find their world turned upside down by finding a birth that is “hard and bitter agony” like death, we too are called by Eliot to see that the only path to life will be through the death of that will holds us back from the deeper life we are called to.  This year I am challenged again by those amazing last lines:

We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.

I am left wondering this question as we turn the page on 2014 and turn our faces toward 2015:

What alien gods are we still clutching and refuse to let go of?

Are we still “at ease” in our current life or have we become “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” and if the latter is true, what will we do about it?

Perhaps this new year we can all put down those alien gods and old dispensations once and for all.

(If you are not familiar with the poem, here it is:)

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

And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a
temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so
we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)

All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.


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