Thoughts of the East Inspired by the Three Wise Men

Every child knows there is something simple and true about the Wise Men. I mean, of course, those chipped and silent figures that begin to appear around Gaudete Sunday and move silently toward Epiphany. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by a set in which the exotic origins of the kings were obvious, perhaps even pronounced. Clearly, Balthasar came from some distant Arabian wadi. Melkior had the robust look of a chief from the Persian steppes or along the Caspian shore. Caspar was decidedly refined, and no doubt in his youth ate sherbet in Kashmir or Kerala. I have seen other sets that show Magi who have clearly passed from beneath the mountain of the Jade Dragon in Lijiang, labored up from Aksum, or sailed from the rude shores of Kyushu.

Now to put forth “non-western” Magi has become an act of cultural appropriation—if we are permitted to depict them at all. Instead, our Magi must all look like extras from a biblical epic of Technicolor days or a high school production of The Sound of Music, as it might have been produced in Peoria. But the child knows that the wise men contain much that is nearly impossible for adults to explain. And, therefore, do we wonder that while children still scan the domestic horizon for the kings, adults rarely marvel over little Nativity figurines? In the Wise Men, the child sees and immediately understands that there is no conflict between the particularism of the Old Testament—“He hath not done in like manner to every nation.” (Psalm 147:20) and the universalism of the New Testament—“There is neither Jew nor Greek…” (Galatians 3:28). In the journey of the Magi, the child understands the call and the bounty that is Christmas:

Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring their gifts; let the kings of Sheba and Seba offer presents. (Psalm 71:10)

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If you who are sinful know who to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in Heaven give good things to all those who ask Him? (Matthew 7:11)

The child knows how to play and imagine. The child is comfortable with paradox. The child knows that the Wise Men traveled far and for good reasons, but reasons which they themselves did not entirely understand. Where the adult sees plaster and plastic, the child sees prudence and courage. In the chipping robes and worn paint, he sees weather-stained heroes and models for life.

I cannot say that I have the simplicity or wisdom of a child. But I know that I should. And so I gaze in wonder at the Nativity figurines. And I especially delight as the Wise Men make their appearance in midst of Advent, from what windswept wastes I cannot guess, but they arrive, one by one, on our bookshelves and mantels. And with my children each year I marvel to wake on cold mornings and discover that these kings have traveled through the night and through the house—our house, kings!—and each dawn finds them just a little closer to our rough, little nativity stable.

And so, readers, you may not be surprised to learn that some time ago I adopted the practices of traveling through Advent and early Christmastide with literary wise men. My principal guides remain the prophets, John the Baptist, and Our Lady—but after these troop along my wise men. Now at the beginning of Advent I pick some short work (literature, philosophy, or poetry) by an author who fell outside of the divine dispensation—some ancient Greek, or Roman, or distant sage of the Orient—but whose works help me to yearn with them for spiritual fulfillment. We are long accustomed to, perhaps too accustomed to, looking at our Greco-Roman ancestors for wisdom; so much that we stopped listening. And yet, the literature that anticipated the coming of Christ or preceded His disciples is worth our consideration. The saints themselves told us to make use of the “spoils of the Egyptians.”

Perhaps this next possibility, however, of turning from the Mediterranean to the Far East as one journeys to Epiphany may be startling, but I believe it enriching. And so, daring though it may for a Catholic teacher to do so, I would like to suggest a few Oriental authors or books for your consideration.

From the Far East, I can recommend both Confucius and Lao-Tzu (or Laotse). To read them in their original, without commentary, can be puzzling, so I recommend the editions produced by Lin Yutang which present their ideas topically. While the general principle of the Tao (the eternal order) will be of interest, and perhaps even congenial, to the Catholic imagination, an idea like that of “not-being” can be perplexing. Let us momentarily ponder “not-being” in the manner of a Taoist (as much as I can). To communicate this idea, Lao-Tzu asks his reader to dwell over the hollow part of a molded jar or the importance that door openings and windows give to a house. Personally, I think this sort of musing is best undertaken with a glass of Madeira. Take a beautiful glass from your cabinet. Marvel over its shape, but also the fact that we can say it “possesses” a hollow cup; it has emptiness. Fill the cup with Madeira. Slowly drink the Madeira. After which, in gazing at the glass, you will agree with the Taoist that there is something useful in the glass’s quality of “not-being.” If you are unconvinced, repeat the exercise. If The Wisdom of Laotse proves too complex, Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh is charming, and perhaps will help fill the intellectually longing driving you forward.

More to my liking is Confucius. Pius XII himself was a defender of Confucius, in a way. Almost eighty years ago, this week, the then recently elevated Pope Pius recognized and approved the honors traditionally bestowed upon the philosopher Confucius, permitting Catholics to reverence his image and name—so long as this was done with filial piety and not syncretic confusion. This was, of course, part of Pius’s elaborate work of advancing the cause of the Faith in China, resisting Communism, and giving support to traditional culture and oriental wisdom literature as a praeparatio evangelica. Such a position was underscored again under Pope Benedict by the International Theological Commission in its In Search of a Universal Ethic (2009). Confucius lived in evil and tumultuous times. He encouraged people to face their troubles by cultivating themselves, and by encouraging them to preserve traditional folkways and customs. One wonders what will be the fate of either traditional Confucian thought or the true Catholic Church, under Pope Francis, since the authorities in China seem interested in neither. Again, for those interested in a journey through Chinese thought, I recommend Lin Yutang’s edition entitled The Wisdom of Confucius.

The longings of Buddhists for the truth are, I believe, best approached by the novice through the ceremonies and poetry of Japan. Reading The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura—once the Curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—is like an encounter with a Zen Chesterton. Okakura’s short book attempts to unlock the East through the simple ceremony of tea. In reading Okakura’s gnomic comments, I am brought to a deeper appreciation of the Christian idea of hospitality; the simple tea ceremony is not a quaint refreshment in the East, but a meditation on the art of life: “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.” As St. Benedict would call upon his friends to treat ordinary tools with respect, with the same respect as an altar chalice, so too Okakura informs his reader that in Zen Buddhism, one recognizes “the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual.” This is not to deny or diminish the spiritual, but to prepare for it by living in the present moment with beauty: “He only who has lived with the beautiful can die beautifully.” Again, this is not the fullness of life, but it approaches by a true path.

Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an excellent starting point for those of a more literary cast of mind. Basho records his wanderings through the sublime and sometimes perilous countryside of seventeenth-century Japan: “In this little book of travel is included everything under the sky… It can be compared to pearls which are made by weeping mermaids in the far-off sea.” Both fanciful and evocative, Basho blends prose and poetry with great effect, overcoming temporal and cultural divides in expressing his thoughts with his readers, as when gazing upon the ruins of a feudal lord. Seeing the long destroyed castle, Basho weeps over his own life and is moved to write a short poem:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of Ancient warriors.

There is something in the still resignation of Basho, something which helps even a Christian understanding the passing nature of the world—a truth that the western world is currently trying to forget.

The danger within strains of Buddhism and most Eastern thought is that in its proper identification of the sad and fleeting nature of things, it has a tendency to move towards impassivity and an utter detachment from all desire. Yet, western man and western thought is marked by a pronounced desire for Being. In its journey away from desire, eastern thought falls short (as it must, for it is merely human). It cannot put aside the supernatural longing that is part of God’s order to bring us to Him. It is interesting, perhaps encouraging, to see the East struggle with the inexorable desire to respond to the inexorable call of God’s mercy.

One remarkable guide from the East is Wu Ching-Hsiung. Wu was born in 1899 and rose through a secularized western-style education to become a prominent jurist in Shanghai. Wu would steep himself in Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist thought, trying to understand his longing for the Transcendent, a longing which the East nourished, but could not fulfill. He encountered Protestant ministers, but found their version of Christianity cold. In 1937, after reading a biography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, he converted to Catholicism and changed his name to John C.H. Wu. He translated the New Testament and the Psalms into Chinese, acted as a delegate to the Holy See, and wrote many books on both Eastern thought and Catholic spirituality.

Wu saw in his own eastern tradition a path that led to renunciation of vice and progress in wisdom, but it was solely a natural path. In his Threefold Way of Love he would write touchingly and reverently of his journey, exclaiming his discovery that God’s “sphere was the sphere of grace,” and that the wisdom which had been sown in the East required grace to grow: “In the life of grace, as in the life of natural morality and wisdom, ripeness is all. In one as in the other, one must continuously grow toward ripeness; for not to advance is to fall back.” His nearly four decades of spiritual journey through the scriptures of the Far East are chronicled in Beyond East and West.

With Wu, we see how eastern culture and its wisdom literature was a praeparatio for the Gospel. His own modern “madness” began to be healed by a sincere encounter with the East; the sages of the East were men whom “God endowed with wisdom and moral courage to teach doctrines pointing, nostalgically, as it were, to the Eternal Word.” The likes of Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and Buddha prompted him, guided him, but his heart was not filled until he had made his long eastern journey to the West. The eastern magi held doctrine that offered considerable wisdom, but “even where they were not erroneous, they were inadequate and left the human mind at an impasse. But this very impasse underlined the necessity of Revelation… what the pagan philosophers had uttered as desiderata are seen as reality in the person of Christ.” His Catholic essays are now gathered together under the title Chinese Humanism and Christian Spirituality. Together with Beyond East and West these books stand as an excellent introduction to the wisdom of India, China, and Japan, and a confession of how the heart of the Orient is only fulfilled by Christ.

Hinduism I cannot recommend for independent reading. Of Islam, I will suggest only that readers face the Quran itself, but not during Advent. In Islam one will not find a sense of suffering and the passing nature the visible world that is so evident in Far Eastern sages. Muhammed is not like Confucius, one who honors tradition. Nor like Lao-tzu, one who delights in leisure. One finds in the Quran something very different: the stark anvil and hammer of the desert. A reader of the Quran is very glad to have passed through its fiery poetry and returned home. Instead, for those interested in Islam, I recommend Hilaire Belloc’s Esto Perpetua, a meditation on the ruins of Algeria and the simmering culture of the desert. For the sheer pleasure, I recommend the ancient stories from Arabia gathered as The Thousand and One Nights, in editions by Laurence Houseman, W.H.D. Rouse, or the inestimable Andrew Lang—all of which bore the finest illustrations of their day. Although pagan in their origin, these Arabic tales have endured and thrilled readers for over three hundred years. They depict a world shot through with treachery, cunning, and injustice (the story’s origin is Queen Scheharazade’s attempt to delay her ravenous and murderous husband’s intent to execute her!), yet one in which evil is kept at bay by an overarching atmosphere of magic and love.

There is much talk of Western men making use of the East for their meditations, much negative talk. It is the sort of criticism that belittles Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia or mocks Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” as jingoistic. And yet, the East has always been fascinating to the West and the West always an attractive destination for the East. The Magi have united it all together for 2,000 years. Some of the earliest Apocryphal (that is, pious, non-inspired, but neither heretical) literature of Christian culture demonstrates this. There is in the Vatican library an ancient Syriac manuscript which depicts the Magi as the descendants of Seth, to whom Adam had revealed God’s plan of mercy for the world. In this account, the Magi were a tribe who watched over “The Cave of Hidden Treasures” which contained many secrets and prophecies concerning God’s benign designs. The Magi kept themselves pure and on guard against the Evil One. They prayed according to ancient rites; they studied natural and supernatural things; and from the mountain fastness they awaited the Redeemer. Such fanciful and pious tales have been beloved in the Christian East and West, long before works like Lost Horizon: the Infancy narratives, the Protoevangelium of James, the many traditions and stories behind The Golden Legend recall something true.

It is deep in the imagination of the West that some special dispensation was granted to the East, to await in its own way the coming of Christ. Even when we say (and we do), with Belloc, “Oh, I thank my God for this at the least, I was born in the West and not in the East…,” we still look wide-eyed upon the vastness of the eastern deserts and mountains and jungles, and we know that God wishes to claim those men who dwell there, and that He has placed a burning desire in their hearts, one that we would profit to consider and help to fulfill.

Eastern literature may present itself to all thoughtful readers as an opportunity to journey with the sages and poets of the Orient towards Christ, and—if lost or too at home in the world—back towards Christ again, and again, and again, like the returning sweep of the liturgical year. For surely, sooner or later we will find ourselves like those weary kings of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi, stuck in “ways deep” and in “weather sharp, the very dead of winter,” when our memory of “silken girls” and the thrill of the “camel men cursing and grumbling” is no longer a memory of adventure or excitement, but a memory crowded with “cities hostile and towns unfriendly,” life dirty, expensive, and offering us more peace when we submit to “travel all night, sleeping in snatches.” To travel with the Magi is at once to restore the understanding and trust of the child, but to do so as a man, and to understand that once the journey to Christ has been made there can be “no ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”

The Magi came with their gifts for the Christ Child. May we learn from their journey, and if we may not feel ease, may we know joy and peace, both natural and supernatural.


  • William Edmund Fahey

    Dr. Fahey is president and fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hamphsire.

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