Affective Contemplation and the Feast of the Epiphany
One of the focal features of our chapel area at St. Hilda’s House is my first icon, a Greek depiction of the Transfiguration. Although the Transfiguration is its own feast day, I chose the icon because of the way that event also resonates with Epiphany, my favorite liturgical holiday. On Epiphany, we pray for our awareness of Christ’s beauty to deepen: “Lead us, who know thee now by faith, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face.” Like the ebb and flow of the tide, the Transfiguration and Epiphany oscillate around the beauty of the incarnate Christ. Contemplating beauty begets wonder, wonder fans the flame of desire, and desire drives us to seek and search that which we have beheld. The magi from the east perceived the beauty of a star rising over Bethlehem, and that beauty guided their journey to the manger throne of Christ.
There are two things that I think distinguish the magi in their role in the Epiphany that I’d like to focus on. First, they were contemplatives. Contemplatives are those who watch for signs. These signs exist all around us, in every object: “The carless curve of a frozen cloud” can soothe the soul, if we have a contemplative eye. But perceiving the cloud does not exhaust it of meaning. On the contrary, contemplating clouds sharpens our imagination to perceive in an ever-unfolding dynamism. These natural signs also pepper the Gospel of John: this may be what ultimately distinguishes his account from the other Gospel writers. Reading the Gospel of John, I am not so much reading for the intention of John as an author as for the intentionality of the signs of bread, breath, light, water, and wine. These natural signs, and our contemplation of them, appear and echo eternally, “gathering volume and richness from every soul that re-echoes it to brother and sister souls… and every new embodiment of a known truth must be a new and wider revelation.” The magi, after many years of contemplating the stars, found the sign signifying the advent of the king of the Jews. And contemplating these natural signs is a necessary component to the Epiphany, for apprehending the depth of a symbol is always preconditioned by the perception of the symbol.
What impelled these magi to search, once they had perceived? The second trait I want to highlight is affection. By affection, I don’t mean a polite endearing disposition, but rather those who are inflamed with a desire for the divine. Saint Bonaventure reminds us that no one receives the mystery of God, “except him who desires it, and no one desires except him who is inflamed in his very marrow by the fire of the Holy Spirit.” Such desires are kindled and fed by the groans of prayer, the whole-sale commitment to finding God within and through the created order. Desire norms this journey because desire is what brings one to contemplate and encourages deeper contemplation of what one already knows. It is for these reason that Saint Bonaventure urges us, “to ask [for] grace not instruction, desire not understanding, the groaning of prayer not diligent reading, the Spouse not the teacher, God not man.” If signs are vestiges of God’s creation, then signs by nature must point through and beyond themselves, and affection is the vehicle of that journey. The magi were affective contemplatives because their desire was not satiated even when they understood that a star signified the birth of the king of the Jews. Desire guided them to see and behold the king.
And so, I inevitably find myself contemplating my own journey each Epiphany. Three years ago, the word signified nothing but its definition. Two years ago, I was Confirmed in the Episcopal Church after spending most of my life bouncing through various expressions of Christianity. A year ago, having healed significantly from some spiritual wounds in my life, I began hearing a call to ministry, though I had little idea about the way that would take shape. This year, I worshipped with the parish that welcomed me, confirmed me, and healed me, and began discerning more formally with the parish about what this may mean for my vocation. This time of year has seen me at one of my lowest points and at one of my highest. The feast day can stand the weight of this immense experiential range because it by nature indicates the way humans come to love and learn about God. Epiphany is that season that reminds you that God is the Eternal Art: ever unfolding, ever eluding, always enticing.