Thursday, January 08, 2009

Column: The Gift of Myrrh

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times8 January 2009]

Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Mt 2: 11b

“I never travel without my box,” sings King Kaspar in my favorite aria from Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. With “one lapis lazuli against quartern fever, one
small jasper to help you find water, one small topaz to soothe your eyes…” the King seems prepared for every eventuality, likely or not.

Menotti’s Magi, laden with tempting gifts, are nearing the end of their trek. The Feast of the Epiphany found me, instead, just beginning a journey. I left behind family and work for five weeks in a retreat house on the coast of Massachusetts, to make St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Thirty days of silence and prayer.

Packing turned out to be a spiritual exercise in itself. What do I need for 30 days in silence in the middle of winter on the Atlantic coast, living in a room just big enough for a single bed and with only a single drawer for storage? Besides my snow boots and a flashlight for ice storms, that is.

I’ve lived with less, in fact. I’ve lived in one room, with a mattress on the floor, two bricks and a board for a shelf, my clothes folded into a milk crate. I’ve spent a summer in the mountains of Mexico where water was pumped by hand, and the plumbing was outside. Still, I’m finding it hard to be a minimalist again in a culture where value-packs, selection, specialized tools and “on demand” rule the day.

There is a discipline to doing with much less that I must re-learn. You use what is to hand, regardless of whether it precisely what you want. Perhaps harder for me, you use what is handed to you. I find it a challenge to be dependent when you are the one so often depended on by your family and your students to meet the needs of the moment.

I am tempted by my own version of King Kaspar’s “just in case” box. I don’t find the jewels as alluring as I do the protection against the potential trials and difficulties they represent. Should I tuck in a few bags of chamomile tea just in case I might want a soothing cup one afternoon? If I’m bringing my drawing pens, should I throw in a couple of extra, just in case I run out of ink?

Each of these what ifs is small, but taken together, I would need at least one extra camel to cart it all eastward. The real burden I’m concerned with is not physical, but spiritual. I don’t want to cushion myself so well that God can’t get in. I don’t want to be so prepared that my fundamental dependence on God for my every breath is obscured by extra pens and tea bags.

St. Matthew does not even give names to the magi, let alone report on the contents of their saddlebags, except to say that they bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant King. Half a millennium later, St. Gregory the Great saw these traditional treasures as surrogates for the gifts all of us should carry on our pilgrimage: the gold of wisdom, the incense of prayer and the myrrh of self-denial. To offer myrrh, he says, is to “employ the spice of self-restraint to keep this earthly bodily of ours from decomposition through decadence”.

So I am taking Gregory’s advice to heart. I am prayerfully and (I hope) wisely sprinkling my suitcase not with comforts and precautions, but with empty spaces. I trust that what I need, will be provided. I’m going to seek God, as the Beloved sings in the Song of Songs, with myrrh dripping from my hands - my empty hands.

The wise men followed the star, and found Christ who is light from light. May you too find the Lord when your pilgrimage is ended. Amen.
From the solemn blessing over the people for Epiphany.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, as always. I had always heard of myrrh only as an embalming spice, which is partly why I wrote about the gifts no mother would want. I like Gregory the Great's commentary better.

    Thinking of you on retreat on the dark and cold midwinter coast . . .