Posted by: gcarkner | December 10, 2022

Transformative Moments of Epiphany

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Mary Encounters Something Wholly Other

Luke 1: 26-56

Epiphanies are suggestive of transcendence. Michael Morgan (1994, pp. 56f)) points out that Charles Taylor sees a parallel between the epiphanies of art and poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the I-Thou epiphany of religious encounter with the divine. Taylor elaborates the idea of epiphanies (1989, pp. 419f, especially 490-93). He sees Post-Romantic and modernist art as oriented to epiphanies, episodes of realization, revelation, or disclosure. Epiphanies and epiphanic art are about a kind of transcendence, about the self coming in touch with that which lies beyond it, a ground or qualitative pre-eminence. One might call it a gift of the imagination or a re-enchantment of reality.

Taylor reviews various ways of articulating epiphany in Sources of the Self (1989, pp. 419-93). He articulates how God, inserted into this idea of epiphany, fits as a moral source (Sources of the Self, pp. 449-52). Epiphanies can be a way of connecting with spiritual and moral sources through the exercise of the creative imagination: sources may be divine (Taylor), or in the world or nature (Romantics like Thoreau), or in the powers of the imaginative, expressive self (Michel Foucault).

These epiphanies are a paradigm case of what Taylor calls recovering contact with moral sources. A special case of this renewal of relationship between the self and the moral source is religion and the relation to God, which he sees in the work of Dostoyevski. The relationship to art parallels the relationship to religion. The self is oriented in the presence of the inaccessible or sublime, that which captures one’s amazement or awe, for example, when one’s eyes are riveted to a certain painting like Monet’s Lillies, and one’s inner emotions are deeply moved by a poem. One is taken beyond oneself, in an experience of transcendence; the experience involves both elements of encounter and revelation. It can come in a discovery such as finding out the chemicals in our bodies were once part of the death of a star; we are stardust, embedded in creation itself; we owe the stars our very existence.

When Mary hears from an angel that she is to become the vessel of a most profound turn of events in history, she is in awe, overwhelmed. It is truly an epiphany, an I-Thou encounter with radical alterity. Heaven and earth reach out to each other at this juncture and something dramatic occurs. This news changes everything. Time stands still in this kairos moment. She allows transcendence and immanence to intermingle within her body, her life. Mary’s story is punctuated by the incursion of the eternal into the temporal, informed by the descent of transcendence into a historical teenager’s life. We know it as the incarnation, the most profound identification of the divine with humanity. D. Steven Long writes in Speaking of God (309): “The purpose of the church is to recognize and acknowledge those conditions by which we can, like Mary, say yes to God and in so doing make Jesus present to the world. Those conditions are the way of holiness and that assumes the transcendentals—truth, goodness and beauty.”

Descent by Malcolm Guite

They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

​But you came down.

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

​But you were born.

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

​And strong to save.

It is a strong transcendence to use philosopher Calvin Schrag’s insightful language. Transcendence means more than a selfless exposure or reorientation alone, but also a receiving that deeply involves the self, its imagination, its inner resources, its visions and revisions. In this calculus, for religion and art, the self remains autonomous and becomes fulfilled as it opens to the impact of the Other. It powers the sensus divinitatis. The human soul is enlarged. Human dignity is placed on a new level with the incarnation. Morgan elaborates through the example of Jewish writer, Martin Buber, on this concept of religious epiphany or I-Thou encounter (Morgan, 1994, pp. 60-61). Taylor appreciates (1994, pp. 226-29) his use of Buber in relation to his (Taylor’s) concept of epiphany. For Buber, the religious event, revelation, involves a meeting between the self and the divine Other, an encounter that depends upon both parties. It is an act of self-affirmation, even as it is a giving over of the self to the Other. Life is enhanced. Freedom and responsibility are enhanced. There is revelation, high thought, deep realization.

The self is receiver, but it is a receiver, not of a content, a proposition, a truth, but rather of a ‘Presence, a Presence as Power’. Furthermore, that Presence provides ‘the inexpressible confirmation of meaning’, a meaning that calls out to be done, to be confirmed by the self in this life and in this world … This confirmation and this affirmation of God and self in the world are what Taylor calls a ‘changed stance towards self and world, which doesn’t simply recognize a hitherto occluded good, but rather helps to bring this about’. (Morgan, 1994, p. 60) There is a profound, transcendent goodness revealed, articulated, interpreted for us.

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Mary Shares the Profound News with Cousin Elizabeth

This entails the emergence of a supreme good in human experience. Thus, the concept of transcendence through epiphany, that has currency for artists and poets of the twentieth century, provides a category for us to extend to the transcendence of God. May this epiphanic realization continue this Advent Season and open up our world to horizons beyond our imagination, a re-enchantment of our reality. Mary is a model to us. She allowed epiphany and grace to transform her into a vessel of the Christ-event. “I am your servant Lord. I will do as you wish.”

Annunciation by Malcolm Guite

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/annunciation/

Dostoyevsky’s (1974) work The Brothers Karamozov reveals the power of transcendence and the danger of refusing it, i.e. remaining trapped within an immanent frame. Charles Taylor notes that:

“One of Dostoyevsky’s central insights turns on the way in which we close or open ourselves to grace. The ultimate sin is to close oneself, but the reasons for doing so can be of the highest. In a sense the person who is closed is in a vicious circle from which it is hard to escape. We are closed to grace, because we close ourselves to the world in which it circulates; and we do that out of loathing for ourselves and for the world … Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is a part of it. And from this can come only acts of hate and destruction. Dostoyevsky … gives an acute understanding of how loathing and self-loathing, inspired by the very real evils of the world, fuel a projection of evil outward, a polarization between self and the world, where all evil is now seen to reside. This justifies terror, violence, and destruction against the world; indeed this seems to call for it. No one … has given us deeper insight into the spiritual sources of modern terrorism or has shown more clearly how terrorism can be a response to the threat of self-hatred … The noblest wreak it [destruction] on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of evil; we want to raise ourselves above it.” (C. Taylor, 1989, pp. 451-52)

The various school and pub shootings are just such a projection of hatred for the Other. It is a simple, cold, deadly logic. It is completely grace-less, warlike and violent, full of hatred and resentment. There appears to be a provocative link from self-sufficiency to pride and to the aesthetics of violence (religious or secular). Taylor holds out hope for a transcendent turn to agape love, hope for a different type of transformation from beyond pure immanent choice focused self-invention and greedy self-interest which brackets the social world/common good and God. There is discovery of self within the economy of grace, a discovery and a transformation that offers a different stance towards self and the world. It is an epiphanic discovery, but only if we allow it. Continuing with his discussion of Dostoyevsky, Taylor (1989) writes of this epiphanic encounter with transcendence,

Edwin Muir The Incarnate One

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

“What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility … Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession [of terror and violence] is a grace-dispensing one. Dostoyevsky brings together here a central idea of the Christian tradition, especially evident in the Gospel of John, that people are transformed through being loved by God, a love that they mediate to one another, on the one hand, with the modern notion of a subject who can help to bring on transfiguration through the stance he takes to himself and the world, on the other … What he [Dostoyevsky] was opposing was that humans affirm their dignity in separation from the world.” (C. Taylor, 1989, p. 452)

We mourn the terrible, tragic  loss of life that comes with racism, aggressive wars and terrorist acts against humanity, and yet we must not give up on love. We can see and think better, live better, be better. We need new eyes, the ability to see through the world to something better–the prophetic stance. Epiphany elevates our gaze so that we are open to the transformation of the world, rather than the elimination of those who are different, who irritate us. We must move away from self-righteousness to suffer and struggle for peace (Rowan Williams, The Truce of God). We must reject the forces of diabolos, division, prejudice, fear and hatred. The clenched fist must be replaced the open hand of fellowship and hospitality. When we come to realize that the very core of reality is love, our cynicism will melt away, our nihilism will give way to rich meaning and purpose. What do we make of Mary’s epiphany and her transformation? Can it rethink and remake our vision of life, our calling? Can transcendent light shine into our inner darkness and heal us? The right epiphany or breakthrough can change everything.

In Christ, we have both immanence and transcendence, physical and spiritual, a grounded this-worldly spirituality. St. John’s Nottingham biblical scholar Anthony Thistelton (Intepreting God and the Postmodern Self, 1993) says that the mystery of the incarnation is too profound for human discovery by reason alone; it requires epiphany or divine revelation. It is beyond our limited imagination to conjure. On the other hand, open-minded reasoning engages, and is engaged by, such profound epiphany. We ponder together the eternal verities. The right posture, the right intellectual virtues of humility and openness can result in discovering absolutely profound insights.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Meta-educator UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, Blogger, YouTube Webinar Producer.

Morgan, M.L. (1994). Religion, History and Moral Discourse. In J. Tully, (Ed.), Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

See also Real Presences by George Steiner; The Self After Postmodernity by Calvin Schrag; Not in God’s Name by Jonathan Sacks.

See also my thirteen-part blog series Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon

Christmas Readings Eternal Seasons: a Liturgical Journey with Henri Nouwen

Definition: The word epiphany comes from the Greek language and is known to translate
to mean manifestation or appearance. It can also refer to the meaning of a
reveal. This ties in nicely with the meaning of the concept of epiphany, when it
is used as a literary device, an epiphany is a moment in which a character
gains clarity or understanding of a situation. They may have been through a
series of events which made no sense or left them feeling uncertain but at the
moment of the epiphany, they gain knowledge, awareness and realisation.

Using the concept of epiphany allows the writer to let the character see a
situation with a fresh pair of eyes or in a brand new light. Usually, when the
character has an epiphany, they are then able to much more easily tackle the
situation or problem with which they are faced.


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