The 17th century English poet John Donne is best known for writing “No man is an island,” but he wrote many other things as well, including a story about a man searching for God; the story was Donne’s way of responding to the deep spiritual yearning felt by many people of his time. In Donne’s parable, the hero of the story comes to the conclusion that God lives on the top of a high mountain, far away at the end of the world—and that by climbing it, he’d be able to see God face-to-face. The man sets out on his quest, and upon finally arriving at the mountain, discovers that it’s much higher and steeper than he had imagined. In his great desire to see God, however, he doesn’t give into discouragement; instead, after studying the mountain from all four sides, he concludes that the easiest and best route to the top is on the eastern slope—and after resting through the night, he begins his ascent at dawn the next morning.
As it happens, the man’s belief is correct—God does indeed live on the top of the mountain, high above His creation and remote from His people. However, the Lord God isn’t satisfied with this, for He desires to be with His children, and asks Himself, “How can I show them how much I love them?” An idea occurs to Him: He can descend from the mountain and live among His people as one of them—and so, as dawn breaks, He begins descending the mountain on its western slope just as the man is climbing up the eastern slope. When the man reaches the top, he finds it empty, and in his profound disappointment he thinks, “God doesn’t live here; maybe God doesn’t even exist at all.” Experiencing a deep depression, the man asks himself, “Why should I bother going back down the mountain, making the long, dangerous return journey to my village? There’s nothing down below but poor, ignorant people. I’m better off without them, so maybe I should stay right here.” John Donne ends his parable here, allowing readers to supply their own ending. The author’s point is a simple one: many people assume that God dwells far away, in remote places like a mountain top or a lonely desert, when in fact He is to be found in our towns and cities and homes (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year A, Series II, p. 17). As much as we yearn for God, His desire for us is infinitely greater—and for that reason, the best place to look for Him is the world in which we live.
All religions claim to search for truth, but they go about it in different ways. On the one hand, many pagan religions were very earthy and practical, believing that all created things have their own spiritual life force and that human destiny is deeply intertwined with the material world. On the other hand, other religions—such as Gnosticism in the past, and Hinduism and Buddhism today, believe that the material world is a trap or an illusion, and that spiritual enlightenment comes from rising above earthly experiences and concerns. In fact, each approach contains an element of truth. God is both immanent—a word meaning present in the world around us—and transcendent, which means He is also far above us and not limited by His creation. Christianity is the only major religion which stresses both these truths equally—and this, I believe, is a sign that the Christian message is true. The story in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) is a simple but powerful illustration of this truth. The magi, who were wise men or astrologers from the east, allowed themselves to be guided by a star, a great celestial wonder which they recognized as a heavenly sign announcing the birth of a divine king. However, this star did not lead them to a gold-adorned palace, or a beautiful oasis in the desert, or even to a remote and forbidding mountain, but—after a stop in Jerusalem—to a humble structure near the insignificant village of Bethlehem. The wise men were not put off by the crude surroundings or by the poor man and humble young woman they found with the Child; instead, they accepted the great truth that had been revealed to them: God had been born as a baby, coming to live among His people in a very simple, everyday, unpretentious manner. King Herod could never have understood this, for in his wicked selfishness, he was used to thinking in terms of power, wealth, and prestige. Christ’s values are very different—and only if we try to accept and live by these values can we expect to be part of His Kingdom.
The wise men rejoiced upon seeing the Child Jesus, but they didn’t stay with Him and Mary and Joseph; after presenting their gifts, they left Bethlehem and returned home. It’s a wonderful thing if we can go away on retreat, or go off to a deserted place for some quiet time, or even go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or elsewhere—but no matter how great that experience, we always have to come home again, returning to our everyday lives and responsibilities. It’s a necessary and valuable thing to come here to Mass at least once a week, hearing God’s word and receiving Christ in the most amazing way in the Eucharist—but we can’t stay here in church; we have to go back to our families and jobs and everyday routines. If our faith is genuine, however, we don’t lose anything by leaving the holy places of our world; through God’s grace, we are able to encounter Jesus, and love Him, no matter where we are. This can be true of all the simple blessings and gifts we receive each day; if we choose, they can be reminders of how Jesus, by dying on the cross, has freed us from our sins and won for us the greatest gift of all: the gift of salvation and eternal life. This can be true of all the annoyances and irritations and problems of daily life; if we choose, they can be opportunities to practice patience and to be aware of Christ’s presence by consciously uniting our sufferings with His. This can be true of all our encounters with other people—especially those in need of our time or assistance or understanding. If we choose, we can recognize Christ present in them and respond in a personal way to His suffering—for as He once said, whatever we do for the least of His brothers and sisters, we do for Him.
The word Epiphany means manifestation, and today’s feast speaks of how God used a star to reveal the presence of His Son in the world. John Donne’s parable reminds us that we don’t have to climb some remote mountain to find God; He is to be found in the world all around us. If we try to obey God’s commandments and live by Christ’s teachings, we will experience His blessings in this life and eventually find the One our hearts seek.