Guide Us To Thy Perfect Light by George Merrill


The journey of the Magi, the legend of the Three Kings or Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas. It’s a significant part of the Christian story; it’s about light, about love and about discovery.

The day was special for me on that January 6th of 1947. I have never forgotten it. I remember it more fondly than Christmas days or even more vividly than the anticipatory thrill I’d feel on Christmas Eve.

During that Epiphany, the confluence of two streams met; a young boy’s emerging sexuality, and the majesty of high church liturgy. It was in those sublime moments I sensed for the first time something that I would not fully understand until much later in my life. Even now, I can’t say I understand it, but I can feel it. What a powerful influence love and light have in our lives. Love, like light, waxes and wanes, but it always returns. Someone always shows up to rekindle both in us.

The Feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings commemorates the journey of the three wise men, who at the bidding of King Herod sought the whereabouts of Jesus. They followed the star “in the East,” found him “in a manger” but, being warned in a dream, did not tell Herod whom they later learned was planning to kill Jesus.

I sang in the choir as a boy. On Thursday nights Franny, Mrs. Sontag and I would walk to choir practice and then home again. I was thirteen. Franny was eighteen, a tall, pretty blond. I had a crush on her. She was nice to talk to. She and Mrs. Sontag listened and took me seriously, not like I was just a kid. Mrs. Sontag was old (probably ten years younger than I am now). She smelled of cigar smoke. Her husband never attended church. He watched TV and smoked all day. I think she was lonely. I liked having these grown up friends. I felt, well, grown up.

Epiphany was special. For me it marked the last colorful church festival before the bleak winter set in. At the end of the Eucharist, we would be given a small candle to take home with us. Each candle was lit from one of the altar candles. We were to take our candles home, while keeping the candle burning on our way. We were symbolically manifesting the light of Christ to the world.

Mrs. Sontag wasn’t in church that day. After lighting our candles, Franny and I set out for home. I liked Mrs. Sontag, but this day I liked more being with Franny by myself.

The day was cold, but not windy.

We chatted as we walked, carefully cupping the candles lest a breeze extinguish them. Franny walked close to me. I was conscious of the dark blue overcoat she wore and her hair, which protruded from under her cap, contrasting with the blue of the coat. She looked pretty and I smelled a fragrance like lemon around her which seemed to suit her well. It suited me well, too.

We kept our candles burning as we walked and talked. I was aware of Franny and luxuriating in the closeness and the sweetness she aroused in me while at the same watching my candle diligently. I wanted to make it all the way home and still have a lit candle. I almost made it.

When we arrived at the street where Franny would head home and I’d continue on for a block, a breeze extinguished my candle. I felt badly. I almost made to the end. I looked sorrowfully at Franny and since she was older than I was and knew more, I asked her if she thought Fr. Rogers would be disappointed in me for not keeping the candle burning. I was concerned that if I were to ask Franny to light the candle from hers that might mean I’d be cheating since getting home with the candle lit was our task. Franny told me that she was sure he would not mind. He said nothing about relighting it, anyway. “Just get home with the light still burning,” she said confidently. I was relieved.

We stopped at the corner. Franny drew closer to me. She extended her candle and after a couple of attempts, the flame quickened and I was good to go. But I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay. It was, however, time to get going. I said goodbye. She turned and made her way up the street. I watched her for a few moments and then went for home . . . with candle burning and a confused heart. I had completed my mission for Christ with only one small glitch, but there was a feeling that remained and I was not sure what to make of it.

Now I think of this day as one of those singular moments of revelation in my life. They just happen. An increasing awareness of my emerging sexuality and a nascent sense of the mystery that’s conveyed in Christianity’s ancient rites and rituals converged in me that day. I felt a sweet tenderness and an intense longing. For just what I didn’t know. I only knew I wanted to be close to Franny and serve God by sharing the light. Now I recognize how I was being moved by the elemental forces of attraction the way everything in the universe is governed by attractions. The planets move in their orbits by mutual attractions as they course along their paths through the cosmos. We are drawn to others by erotic attraction. In the liturgies of religious celebrations of God’s actions in the world, the extravagant beauty to which they witness leaves me awed and wondering about what it all means.

And then there’s light. I’ve watched sunflowers turn in a field, inching their way around to keep their faces to the sun as if the sun had cast a spell. I’ve seen infants lying in a crib, enchanted, with eyes riveted on a mobile turning above them, the mobile dancing with tiny points of light. People rarely weary of the magic of sunrises and sunsets, nor of a full moon or starry sky. Everything in the universe begins with light. Candlelight is the preferred accessory to romance.

I took the accompanying photograph. It’s of a seasonal decoration we’ve had for years. It depicts the journey of the Magi – following the light of the star. It has no pretense to art. It’s like a child’s plaything. What endears it to me is its innocence. The innocence of childhood may be the last time you or I have had an unobstructed vision to be thoroughly awed and to see clearly into the mystery of how life unfolds.

Perhaps only in those times of innocence and unknowing is our vision sufficiently unencumbered to see deeply into light in all its purity and majesty?

The final line in hymn popularly sung during Epiphany ends with these words: “Oh, star of wonder, star of night . . . Guide us to Thy perfect light.”

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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