In the Christmas Nativity story, the Three Kings, far from being wise men, display astonishing political naivety. They congratulate Herod, the local supremo, on the arrival of a superpower and expect him to be thrilled at his own impending eclipse. Furthermore, they embarrass him when their assumption that he will know more than they do about this proves very wide of the mark. Where is the infant King of the Jews? they ask, eagerly. For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.
Herod has to hastily consult his experts and the result is worrying. Somehow these three kingly foreigners have stumbled on something that may very well prove true – the birth of a rival for the throne. Who will find that child first? Herod cloaks his alarm in a pretence of enthusiasm and sends the trio off to locate the child not, as he pretends, so that he can pay him homage, but so he can neutralise this threat to his kingship.
The Magi do find the baby but, that same night, a dream warns them not to return to Herod. What these seers don’t see in the daylight, they perceive in the darkness. And they are advised to make for home immediately by another route.
Within twenty-four hours everything happens as predicted and yet not quite. They have no time to enjoy the success of their own star-gazing predictions. Political reality imposes itself. The killing machine arrives. Herod’s soldiers exterminate all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. In the Western Christian liturgical calendar, the commemoration of the Slaughter of the Innocents occurs on the 28th December. A mass tragedy on the heels of joy.
Dreams are threaded through the Christmas narrative. They include several dreams that Joseph has. After the Magi have left, he dreams that an angel tells him, Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him. And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there till the death of Herod.
This family become refugees. They are obliged to go beyond the reach of annihilating power. Over the centuries, artists, especially painters, have imagined that Flight into Egypt, as it is known, of Mary, Joseph and the baby. They were expecting to return to their home in the north of the country after a short stay but instead they find themselves heading further west, into the unknown, without a plan for being there or getting back again.
The paintings usually depict the journey. I have never seen a depiction which imagines episodes along the way. But I have imagined them myself. Joseph wondering who to trust in a new place. He doesn’t have his carpentry tools – he hadn’t expected to need them. But he has those gifts from the Magi: that gold, frankincense and myrrh, so those will get traded, or stolen. Where will they live? When will they know it is safe to stop fleeing? How could all this possibly be what’s meant to happen – this heading further and further away from home?
It is my imagination which shows me scenes, allows me to put myself ‘in the frame’ with those people. Is that useless fantasy? Well, I recall that Mary, who, I think, was something of a poet, declared after the angel of the Annunciation left her, that God had scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts…
the imagination of their hearts – what a phrase! Mysterious. Vast. Linking imagination and heart, a bold use of metaphor. The proud dream up great schemes which will come to nothing in their vainglory.
Mary was lucky that she gave birth immediately before her exile began. Many women are pregnant when they have to endure their own Flight. They face giving birth in a country where they may know no one intimately, or speak the language, or understand the expectations. In Wales these are very often women who have been ‘dispersed’ by the Home Office from their point of arrival in the U.K. to a place they have not chosen. And after giving birth, they return ‘home’ to, perhaps, a room in a shared house, in a city they have hardly seen, to a future full of uncertainty. In these circumstances, they are expected to be the providers of certainty and security for their children. Once one’s imagination begins to consider their situation it is obvious how risky it is.
In 2016, two women met at a City of Sanctuary event. They saw the need to help such pregnant asylum-seekers in Cardiff. Their efforts grew into the charity, the Birth Partner Project.1 The support of the charity can be offered to women by the Midwifery services. Or a member of the public can inform the charity if s/he knows of a woman in this kind of need. So long as the woman wants their help, Birth Partners visits the women during pregnancy and accompanies them through labour and delivery and the crucial post-delivery period. They build a relationship with the women, on the women’s terms and, if there is a crisis this pays off in much better outcomes. Birth Partners support the midwives through investment of their time, especially in bridging between the midwifery services in the community and in the hospital, so that the desirable ‘continuity of care’ is more likely to be achieved.
Typically, women whom Birth Partners support are having their first child and are very recent arrivals in the U.K. so they lack a network of friends. Some have other children and a partner but need the kind of local know-how that is often taken for granted – especially in dealing with ‘the system’. Some have been trafficked.
This charity exemplifies how imagination and empathy can lead to fruitful action in a context of many challenges.
Poets are sometimes asked what poetry can do in the face of harsh reality. Phil Cope, who is one of the poets featured in my collection, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere 2, posed this question the other day and answered it like this, A poem never stopped a tank, but a tank can never stop a poem.
A poem is an exercise of the imagination in a joint sense, occurring between the poet and reader. And maybe a poem is a kind of dream, but a dream shared: something that exists fleetingly in time yet can leave a deep imprint on the individual, both poet and reader.
We have surely all had some dreams so powerful that they seem to require us to do something in response. But what?
I was fortunate, years ago, to come across some excellent techniques for working with dreams 3. There are many aspects to this dreamwork and it should never be done lightly (especially in the case of nightmares) because one is dealing with one’s own deepest, interior world. So respect and gentleness are called for.
One simple exercise is TTAQ: Title, Theme, Affect, Question. When I apply this, I recall the dream in as much detail as possible. I give it a title. I consider what the theme is. I go through the dream noting emotion (affect); how I felt at various points. Finally, I ask what question the dream may be putting to me. This last one is important. What matters is not what the dream ‘means’, in a crude sense, but what it may be asking the dreamer to consider. The dream’s potential question invites free choice within the ‘real’ world, not a dictat from the unconscious to be carried out unthinkingly. One must discern for oneself.
My trio of poems The Magi Remember began when I pulled at a thread of my imagination. How could those three have mucked-up so spectacularly? Because they certainly did. They left in their wake chaos, murder, displacement. How did they feel?
I greatly admire the work of someone else who teased out his own reactions to the story and boldly rendered them into the tangible. Giselbertus, a sculptor, worked on the cathedral of Autun between 1125 and 1135. On the capitals of pillars he portrayed biblical episodes with extraordinary flair. One is known as The Dream of the Magi. Look what he does with the space at his disposal! He imagines a little event that is in not in the bible but it had a reality for him. Here are the Three Kings right back at the very beginning of their story. One has just come awake but he hasn’t registered what woke him. He has not yet turned and seen the star…
- Donations to the Birth Partner Project can be made via their website
- Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere, Seren Books, 2022 https://bit.ly/3YgrL9N
- Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Judaeo-Christian Way of Dreamwork by Savary, Berne, Kaplan Williams. Paulist Press, 1984
Angela Graham, 15.12.22
The first photo is of ‘The Dream of the Magi’, a carved capital, Autun Cathedral (photographer unknown). The second photo is a detail from the cover of Sanctuary by Angela Graham.