Following a Star, and then Leaving by Another Road
1.In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12).
2.The original Greek, translated as "wise men" in the NRSV, is "magoi," often rendered as "magi." The word is the root of modern English words like "magic" and "magician" (via the Latin "magus"), but the original reference was to a class of scholar-priests of the Zoroastrian faith of Persia/Iran. Before the coming of Islam, Zoroastrianism was the dominant faith in Iran for in the neighborhood of 1500 years. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith, revering a singular, all good, all knowing force of creation that they called Ahura Mazda, "the Wise Lord." There is strong evidence that some ideas that became part of Judaism, and thus into Christianity and Islam, had their origins in Zoroastrianism--including angels and the idea of the Devil or Satan. People talk about the three great monotheistic faiths, but it seems to me that Zoroastrianism should be considered the fourth member of that fraternity.
Anyway, the point is that these magi who visited Jesus were, from a religious perspective, distant cousins of Mary and Joseph and King Herod and the other folks living in Judea. Zoroastrians, especially highly educated scholars like the magi, would have known about Judaism and probably thought well of their fellow monotheists--the Bible has a number of anecdotes that show the Persian Empire treating Judaism very favorably. But the magi were not Jews, and Matthew makes clear that the magi only had the vaguest idea of what they were looking for when they arrived in Jerusalem. Like many people of that time, they believed that the stars were a vehicle for divine communication. And thus, when they saw something new in the sky, they believe it to have some sort of important cosmic significance. And when they perceived it be leading them to Judea, they assumed that what the divine significance was, it has something to do with Judea and its people. But what that was, and how it related to Judaism, they probably had little to no idea.
But yet, they still followed the star. They went in search of something, not knowing what that something was, only that it was something worth searching for.
3.Fifteen years ago, I was living in Denver, Colorado. I was a novice with the Dominicans, and I was beginning to think that I was living in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing. All of the joy, all of the excitement, all of the spirit of adventure and consolation about the idea of religious life that I had and carried with me through three very, very difficult years had drained away. It didn't happen all at once, but by the time 2002 became 2003, I couldn't ignore it anymore. Intentionally, one of the facets of the novitiate is that you have time on your hands, time to reflect and pray and confirm your vocation. By the time I got to 2003, I was desperate for distractions and projects and anything to fill the time. I had checked out, and was just going through the motions.
The struggle, internally, was between doing what I wanted to do (i.e., leave and do something else) and doing what I thought God wanted me to do. My basic assumption was that God wanted me to be a priest and a religious--why wouldn't God want that? When four months later I pulled the trigger and left, I understood that decision as fundamentally a selfish one. I justified the selfishness in two ways. First, my novice master (who has since passed away--God rest your soul, Fr. Michael) told me he felt that I needed to go out and achieve some things in the world and that once I did that I would be ready to come back. I didn't really believe that I would come back, but I latched on to the notion that this might be a temporary and necessary phase as opposed to a total walk-away from God.
Second, I had a conversation with the prior of the community (who has also since passed away--God rest your soul, Fr. Cornelius) about why he decided to stay with the Dominicans. His answer was "I never really decided to stay. I just went along, day after day. I saw people leaving, and I wondered why I stayed, but basically I woke up one day and I was a priest." That answer, from a truly genuine and kind man who I respected and cared for deeply, filled me with unmitigated terror. I was terrified of waking up as a 40 year old priest and feeling trapped and having little or no good options. I can remember very viscerally the fear, and it was that fear that pushed me over the edge. I left maybe a week after having that conversation with Fr. Cornelius.
So, I left. There have definitely been times during the years following that I thought that I had made a mistake in leaving, that I had wimped out or took the easy way out by leaving. But those moments passed. I felt a bit guilty that I left, but I saw it as necessary and right. I guess priesthood and religious life was for more hardcore people than I, or so I thought.
4.The magi had the advantage of knowing that they didn't know what they were looking for. Because of these known unknowns, they asked people to help them fill in the details, and Herod and his advisers obliged. If it weren't for having others to fill in the gaps, they magi might not have ever made it to Bethlehem and to Jesus. As much as the vision of the solitary spiritual pilgrim has a romantic appeal, setting out completely on your own to find the divine usually results in endless, purposeless wandering. Asking for advice is smart and necessary, and sometimes you need to run down the thread that you are given to see where it leads.
That's not how I understood my time with the Dominicans while it was happening. I thought I knew exactly what I was looking for, which is why when I decided to stop following the path I felt as if I was giving up on God to some degree. But I don't see it that way anymore. I saw a star, and I wanted to follow it without really having a firm idea of what that meant. So, I asked around, and people told me what the star was and where I was supposed to go.
When I got where my star was pointing me, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I'm sure the magi, especially after hearing Herod and his court hype up the Messiah, weren't expecting a random baby with poor parents hanging out (perhaps in a manger) in an otherwise nondescript exurb of Jerusalem. Perhaps that's an occupational hazard of following a star--the destination ends up not being as grand as you have made it out to be in your mind as you make your way there. Perhaps that's because we never really know what we are looking for, not really. Perhaps the journey and the act of following the star is as important, and maybe more important, than the destination.
5.A year ago, I was sitting in an Episcopal Church for a Saturday evening Mass, and I heard a sermon about vocations, and more specifically a vocation to the priesthood. I remember very clearly my emotional reaction to the talk. The first emotion was a sense of wistfulness, as I remembered what it felt like to believe that I had vocation to the priesthood. It was, weirdly, a nostalgic feeling--"wasn't that a nice time?" But, I thought, those days are clearly over and past.
Then came a thought, which was also a feeling, that burst through as if someone was shouting directly at me.
"Maybe you didn't have a vocation to be a Roman Catholic priest?"
Having heard that thought, it felt like someone had opened a trap door under my feet. Things that I thought were closed off for good are now back open. And in the intervening year, many things have happened that seem to lay out a path along these lines, and several people (who have no vested interest in this one way or the other, save for desiring good things for me) have affirmed and supported the idea that maybe I should look again at this idea. And it leads me to thing that maybe I didn't abandon the call when I walked away from the Dominicans; maybe I just left by another road.
Now, I don't mean to make an equivalence here between the Dominicans/Roman Catholic Church and King Herod. Herod, as we know from the rest of Chapter 2 of Matthew's Gospel, is a murderer and a bad person by any account. But I don't think that the people leading you have to be murderers in order for God to send you home by another road. I am coming more and more to believe that, far from turning my back on God when I decided to leave the Dominicans, God was pushing me out the door. The fears and concerns I had were not selfish (or, at least, not entirely selfish), but instead were drawing on something that was coming from a deep source. I feel now like God was protecting me from something by pushing me out, especially as I see more clearly the deep and pervasive problems in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
But, also, I feel more and more that it was good that I went into the Dominicans. It was not wasted time, or a mistake, or some sort of delay, which is a thought I have definitely had periodically in the past. I needed to go, and I needed to see what was there. Sometimes things have to happen a certain way.
6.We don't know what happened to the magi after they left by a different road. There are many stories of what happened, perhaps most famously T.S. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi" recounting an ambiguous reaction to the experience. Tradition says they all eventually became Christians.. Who knows?
However much they understood what happened to them, I feel like the magi are a perfect model for faith. They followed a sign they didn't understand except insofar as they had a sense that it was important. They listened to the people who tried to fill in the gaps as to the meaning of their sign. When the came to place they were told, they laid their gifts at the feat of Jesus, even though it was not what they expected and it seemed to not make much sense in the moment (there is a tradition, which I love, that Mary and Joseph sold all of the magi's gifts to finance the flight into Egypt to escape the murderous regime of Herod). And then, when prompted to abandon the guidance they had received that brought them to the place, they did so and went home by another road. Whatever happened to them afterwards, they did everything they were supposed to do.
In my own life, the star is back. In keeping with the example of the magi, I am going to follow it, without worrying about the fact I have no idea where it is leading me, nor any idea what arrival would look like. I'm going to listen to people who have guidance for me, but I am prepared to leave by another road if necessary. And if I find something, I am going to place my gifts, meager though they are, at the foot of the people that need them.