Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
Any woman who calls the weeks before Christmas the Interminable Season of Holy Obligation either is joking, or has a surfeit of sugarplums dancing in her head. When one of my friends coined the phrase, she wasn’t joking.
Her head begins filling with Christmas visions around mid-September. Knowing she has only three months to achieve holiday perfection, she throws herself into a veritable orgy of planning, listing, and scheduling. Buying gifts, sending cards, selecting menus, and baking cookies fill the days and weeks. If she dares moan that she has too much to do, her husband always offers his same, mild suggestion: that she not do so much.
That, of course, is impossible. Christmas is coming — in three months, two months, five weeks, three weeks — and when it arrives, there will be no fallen soufflé, no forgotten batteries, no unfortunately-colored sweater: not if she has anything to do with it. And, it must be noted, there will be very few surprises.
Consumed by preparations, my friend neither knows nor cares that one of the 20th century’s most highly-esteemed theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, would consider her holiday frenzy a nearly-perfect example of what he terms futurum: a fancy Latin word for a future grounded in, and shaped by, realities of the present and past.
In Moltmann’s writings, futurum points to the unfolding of events through the unending, unbroken flow of time. Because this future is an extension of the present, we’re able to exercise a certain degree of control over its development, and determine the shape it will take — much as my friend shapes her Christmas celebrations.
But Moltmann describes a second, quite different future, with another recognizable Latin word: adventus. A translation of the Greek word parousia, or “presence,” adventus refers to events that break into history, interrupting it from the future. Wholly unplanned, unexpected, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable, these events confound human expectation, and shimmer with mystery.
Advent, of course, is the season liturgical churches dedicate to this surprising future. Far more than a mad dash to the finish line we call Christmas, Advent is meant to serve as a season of anticipation; an occasion for waiting and watching; an opportunity to open ourselves to unbidden gifts from the future.
To put it differently, if Christmas is the destination, Advent is the surprise-filled journey. For years, my favorite Advent poem has been one that recalls perhaps the greatest journey of all: the return of Odysseus to the island of Ithaca, after the Trojan War.
Written by Constantine P. Cavafy, a Greek poet living in Alexandria, Egypt, “Ithaka” was published in 1911. One of his most popular poems, it avoids banality or sentimentality in its depiction of Odysseus’s journey, even as it joins us to those epic travels.
Despite assertions that Cavafy is impossible to translate from the Greek, translations of “Ithaka” abound. One of most widely-known, that of reads easily, making even Cavafy’s Homeric references — to Laistrygonians, to the Cyclops, to a variously angry or wild Poseidon — seem as familiar as his allusions to Phoenician trading stations and Egyptian cities.
Ironically, my favorite version of the poem is no translation at all. I came by it more than a quarter-century ago, but neglected to copy the source. The only online reference I’ve found was in the Ocala [Florida] Star-Banner, on December 19, 1987. The text published there differs slightly from my version, and the columnist who quotes it calls it a “Christmas poem.” He attributes it to Cavafy, but no translator is listed. Personally, I suspect Lawrence Durrell.
Durrell included a reworking of John Mavrogordato’s translation of Cavafy’s poem, “The City,” in the end notes of Justine: the opening novel of his Alexandria Quartet. In a Words Without Borders article on translating Cavafy, both the limitations and the strength of Durrell’s approach is noted:
This is, by far, the least faithful rendition of the poem, and one no one should even attempt to pass off as Cavafy’s. But it does capture something of Cavafy’s spirit, which the others do not. There is, in the end, something at once dry and maudlin in each translation I’ve consulted, as though none of the translators can quite find the right pitch or calibrate the right tone.
Durrell, on the other hand, conveys in a cadence that is uniquely English the rich tonalities of sorrow and regret as they have existed in the language of Shakespeare, Browning and Yeats. And this, perhaps, is the secret of translation: to capture in the “target” version (English) not just the spirit and the letter of the “source” version (Greek), but to do so in an idiom that the English reader would instantly recognize as bearing all the luster of an immortal poem.
That same cadence, those same tonalities, the same comfortable, idiomatic language suffuse this version of “Ithaka,” maintaining Cavafy’s vision of Ithaca as both destination and journey. In time, the poem seems to suggest, we will reach her. And yet, even as we travel, she comes to us: a future reality illuminating the present.
As you set out for Ithaca,
wish for a long journey
filled with adventures, knowledge.
Don’t be afraid that bad things will happen.
If you keep your mind and feelings full
no evil will fit into your heart,
nor come to alarm you.
Wish for a long journey,
for many summer mornings;
imagine the joy and pleasure
of entering new harbors for the first time.
Stop at exotic markets, finding good things —
pearls, coral, amber, ebony,
You can take your fill at these far-off cities,
and learn from wise ones, too.
And keep Ithaca always in mind.
It’s your destination.
But don’t rush the journey in the least.
Better for it to take a long time
so that, finally, in spite of the accrued years,
you will cast anchor fresh
with all of the journey’s riches,
requiring nothing of Ithaca herself.
For Ithaca gave you the journey.
Without Ithaca you would not have set out.
Ithaca has nothing else to give.
If you find her empty,
think not that you have been tricked.
You have becomes wise with experience,
and you are filled
with the treasure of Ithacas.