Life's Journey

Reading 1:

Ithaca

When you start your journey to Ithaca, 
Then pray that the road is long, 
Full of adventure, full of knowledge, 
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
And the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon. 
You will never meet such as these on your path
If your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
Emotion touches your body and your spirit. 

You will never meet the Lestrygonians, 
The Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon, 
If you do not carry them within your soul, 
If your soul does not raise them up before you. 
Then pray the road is long. 
That the summer mornings are many, 
That you will enter ports seen for the first time
With such pleasure, with such joy! 
Stop at Phoenician markets, 
And purchase fine merchandise, 
Mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony, 
And pleasurable perfumes of all kinds, 
Buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can; 
Visit hosts of Egyptian cities, 
To learn and learn from those who have knowledge. 

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind. 
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all. 
It is better to let it last for long years; 
And even to anchor at the isle when you are old, 
Rich withal that you have gained on the way, 
Not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches. 

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. 
Without her you would never have taken the road. 
But she has nothing more to give you. 

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you. 
With the great Wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, 
You must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means. 

C. P. Cavafy

 
 

Reading 2:

verse from the Rig Veda
(italics are the response – response words are also printed in the order of service)
 
Although my spirit may wander the four corners of the earth,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may go far away over the sea,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here. 

Although my spirit may go far away to the flashing beams of light,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may go far away to visit the sun and the dawn,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may wander over the lofty mountains,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may go far away into all forms that live and move,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may go far away to distant realms,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may go far away to all that is and is to be,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.
 
Although my spirit may wander in the valley of death,
Let it come back to me again so that I may live and journey here.

 

Sermon

I am about to break the first rule I learned about sermons!  That rule is “don’t talk about preparing your sermon!”  In other words, don’t start by saying “when I was asked to give this sermon, my first reaction was…” or “As I sat down to write this sermon…”

I think it’s a wise rule, but – as they say – rules were made for breaking – at least occasionally.

So here goes…

Almost every preacher and writer I have spoken with has shared with me a very common experience: the hardest part of writing is getting started.  When I have in front of me a blank page or a blank screen on my computer, anything is possible.  There is a chance that I could create the perfect sermon – one that would transform and enlighten and educate and improve the lives of everyone that heard it.  Or I could be like the ancient scribes and write words that will become Holy Scriptures that will be read and revered for millennia to come.  With blank page in front of me, it is possible that I will write the most perfect poem ever written – a poem that touches the heart of every person who reads it.  

But, as soon as I write the first word, the infinity of possibilities collapses into a very finite reality.  With the second word, I am well on my way in a particular direction.  With a full sentence committed to paper (or random access memory as the case may be), I can pretty clearly give up hopes of writing the next bible, Qur’an, or Vedas.

I raise all of this, not because I couldn’t come up with any other way to start but because of this:  What is true for writing is all the more true for the epic work of creativity that is our life.

When we first set out in life, it may be with the sense of infinite possibility.  Our future can be almost anything we choose – or so we think.

Each step we take though, further limits our options.  Our choices narrow. Like writing with pen on paper, we can not undo our steps or the things that befall us.  The universe of possibilities becomes smaller and smaller with each move we make.

This may seem like a bleak outlook, but stick with me.  I am going to suggest to you that it is anything but – that this whole way of looking at life is wrong-headed.

We often speak of life as a journey. It is one of the most common and useful ways to speak about the experience of our lives.  We talk about being on a path. We encounter detours and bumps in the road along the way.  We are guided by warning and direction signs.  We can be confused and go around in circles.  We take wrong turns when we reach a crossroads, which might lead us to a dead end.  

As we picture this grand journey of life, we usually picture a destination. We start in one place – we aim for another and do our best to get there. 

As a young man, I imagined my destination: the picture included a wife and children, a house in the suburbs, and a nice car.  There would be a high-paying job where I would be good at everything I did and where I would be respected and in control.  I thought that this destination looked like happiness.  I would arrive there – all would be bliss – and then I would more or less coast on in that state until I died.  

In his book, “Breakfast at the Victory,” James Carse imagines an encounter with his past self as he visits his University campus for a reunion some decades after his graduation.  Sitting down in a familiar spot on the campus, he begins his conversation with the boy he once was.

The boy seems disappointed as learns a bit about his future self: “So, you’re just a teacher. A professor.  You teach in a great University?”

“It’s not great, but it’s OK”

“What about [Sarah]?”

“Each of us married someone else.”

“Someone else? How can that be?  I’ve never met anyone like [Sarah]”

“I fell in love with another woman.”

“What happened to [Sarah]?  Wasn’t she upset? I mean, gosh, she really loves me.”

“She was upset. She sent back everything you ever gave her in a big box. […] But I doubt that she was very upset.  She married that guy she was dating when you met her.”

“The one from her home town that goes to Harvard?”

“That one”

“She’s much too good for him.”

“What’s she like? Your wife, I mean.”

“You’re in for a surprise.  She was like no one you ever thought of marrying.  You have some growing up to do before you and this woman can love each other.”

“You talk about her in the past tense.”

“She’s dead.”

“She died?”

“Yes.”

The boy “…sat quietly for a while.  […] his story of love had no place in it for this. […] he seemed stunned by how much his life would change.”

“Those dreams of yours” said the man, “They’re not such great dreams.  But, then, not one will come true anyway.  You man not want to have the life I have but I definitely prefer this to the life you dream of.”

The boy turned and smiled “You seem to have forgotten who I am.  It’s my dreams, such as they are, that led you to the dreams you live by now.”

What would your conversation with your younger self sound like?  I doubt that there is one among us who has set out for a particular destination, reached it, and found it to be as they expected.  My experience was not like this.  When I reached that destination, I found myself with a loving wife and son, but with little sense of who I was or why I was doing what I was doing with most of my time.  It took some time to recognize that life is a journey, but that it is not a conventional one with a set destination.  

In our first reading this morning, C. P. Cavafy takes a page from Homer’s Odyssey, but shifts the emphasis. “…do not hurry the voyage at all”, he writes, “It is better to let it last for long years, […]Not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.”  “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. Without her you would never have taken the road. But she has nothing more to give you.”  It is the journey that matters.

We are not climbing a mountain to get to the top.  The climb itself is the important part.  If each step of the climb is misery and only the summit holds the potential for joy, the vast majority of our lives will only offer us suffering.  

A Zen aphorism says this:  “Each step of the journey is the journey.”

To hang our dreams of happiness on a destination is to invite sorrow. The only sure way to be happy and content, is to find happiness and contentment in each step – in each moment of the journey.  “Each step of the journey is the journey.”  

This is a truth that invites us to live in a different way – with a full attention to the sacredness and meaning of each precious moment.  A life lived fully is not one without goals, but one in which we are present to each step we take toward those goals.  Ursula LeGuin puts it nicely: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”


There is a second truth about the journey of life that we should consider.  For lack of a better name, I’ll call this the petrol station principle.

I think I have mentioned before that I have a dismal sense of direction, and so I get lost often.  When I am lost while driving, I will – as a very last resort, of course – pull into a petrol station or find some other person along the way to ask for directions.  As I listen, I’m not at all sure what the person giving the instructions is actually saying, but what I hear is “Go down here, take a left at the light, and then blah blah blah blah three streets blah blah blah blah a store blah blah blah red house blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, and there you are!  

All along the journey that is life, we encounter potential guides and teachers.  The trails have been blazed and signposted by the wise men and women who came before us.  And yet, these words of wisdom can be of almost no use until we are ready for them.  

I distinctly remember a wise elderly relation cornering me at some family gathering when I was a teenager.  I spoke of my angst about what I would do with my life and how I could be successful.  She told me in the most caring, earnest way possible:  “Do what you love. The rest will take care of itself.” I nodded politely, thinking how easy this was for her to say from her perspective – how impractical was her advice – what utter nonsense it was.  I wasn’t ready to hear that piece of wisdom until nearly thirty years later when it hit me like a brick that I was not doing what I loved – I was living for a destination rather than the journey.

I only became able to hear the wisdom in those words I carried around with me after I had run to the end of what I thought was my path.  The path is often invisible from where we stand today.  What we think is the path may be an illusion – a projection of expectations and influences that are apart from the longings of our own true selves.

Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Real Work” speaks to me of this paradox:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
 
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
 
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
 
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
 
It may be that our journey can begin when we no longer think that we know which way to go – that our song can be sung only when we are stopped in our tracks.  Gazing off toward a distant goal may keep us moving, but it can also keep us from looking – from noticing – from feeling what we are feeling – from knowing what we know and being who are at this very moment.

The journey we believe we are on – the one we set out on – the one whose options narrow with each step – is unlike writing. It is not our real journey.  The real journey is in the here and now.  It is in the flower we stop to smell, the smile we exchange with a stranger, the hand we hold.  It is in the feeling we consider brushing away and then gather up our strength to face.  It is in the unnameable something that we sense connects us to all things.

Let us not stop dreaming our dreams, but let us recognize them for what they are: the present image of our heart’s longing – an image to be treasured but also to be released and freed to change with each new step we take as we are present to each moment of this precious life.

Although your spirit may wander far
Let it come back to you again so that you may live and journey here.

So may it be with you.