Warning: this is a LONG rumination! Read it when you are in the mood for something to chew on.
When I traveled with Maryknoll missionaries to campus ministry sites in Peru and Bolivia in 2001, I felt prepared for anything. In my suitcase—one of the largest in our group—I had clothes for every climate, remedies for every malady, and even “hostess” gifts for every community: four one-pound Whitman Sampler boxes! With difficulty, I dragged that giant bag up and down the stairs of each new residence; with embarrassment, I watched our guides strain to get it to the top of the bus each time we changed cities.
At the other end of the packing spectrum was Fr. Claude, an older Canadian priest, who carried only a duffel bag. A smallish duffel bag at that—and it was not full. He wore the same sweater every day, and washed his socks and underwear in the bathroom sink each night. My chocolate weighed more than his luggage! Watching him hop up and down steps and on and off buses with that thing, I experienced a wee bit of judgment (no one was turning to him for Band-Aids or Pepto-Bismol) and a hefty dose of jealousy. Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.
Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.
That experience, almost twenty years ago, stirred my lasting interest in packing—both logistically and as a metaphor—as it shows up in life, in literature, and even in Scripture. Cleaning out deceased loved ones’ houses, downsizing, and giving up my office (AKA overflow storage) added a new intensity to my wrestling match with “stuff.” And now, as I plan for the Ignatian Camino this fall, I realize I will finally be taking a page from Fr. Claude’s book: in Spain, I will be washing my (limited) unmentionables in the sink each night!
Because we never know what the future holds, any journey—to a new place or simply a new year—is a trip into the unknown. How do we prepare? I think of the call of Abram: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). No map, no GPS coordinates; nothing for it but to start moving. The same was true of those first disciples. Alerted by John the Baptist (“Behold the Lamb of God!”) Andrew and John tailed Jesus like a couple of curious teenagers, asking, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus simply responded, “Come, and you will see” (John 1:36-39). Like Abram, the disciples had to set out in order for their destination to unfold.
Jesus may not have been clear about where to go, but he was very clear about how. Sending his disciples two-by-two to drive out demons and cure the sick—things for which fishing and tax collecting had not prepared these guys one bit—Jesus sharply limited what they could bring. They were to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic” (Mark 6:8-9). In other words, they could take what allowed them to travel swiftly and lightly (the sandals and walking stick), but not what would encumber them—things that needed to be carried, kept track of, or worried about. More importantly, they could not take anything (especially money!) that would tempt them to rely on their own provision, or insulate them from the opportunity to encounter God’s goodness in the hospitality of strangers.
They could take what allowed them to travel swiftly and lightly, but not things that needed to be carried, kept track of, or worried about.
So, how does Jesus’ directive apply to us today? I’m sure it will be on my mind as I select my “sandals” (i.e. good hiking boots) and walking stick for the Camino, but surely this Scripture applies to ordinary life, not just once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages. I think it goes back to that idea that every journey is a trip into the unknown—even when all we are setting out for is a new year or just a new day. I recently collected stories (both fictional and true) of people packing for significant journeys, which yielded a few insights about the types of things we should 1) leave behind, 2) weigh carefully, or 3) definitely pack, no matter our destination. Here are glimpses into the stories, followed by the insights . . .
Teaching a Stone to Talk
In her chapter entitled “The Northwest Passage,” Annie Dillard tells the story of the 1845 Franklin Expedition, in which Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men set out in two sailing ships to find a route through the Canadian Arctic, from England to the Pacific. (Spoiler alert: they all perished.) The most riveting thing about this story, for me, was the ridiculousness of what they packed. Anticipating two or three years at sea, each ship had a 1,200-volume library, but only a twelve-day supply of coal for its auxiliary steam engine. They did not bring any specialized clothing for extreme weather, but they did bring “china place settings, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware . . . engraved with the officers’ initials and family crests” (p. 24). Over the next twenty years, Dillard notes, explorers found evidence of expedition members’ attempts to walk for help (their ships being trapped in the ice), dragging with them sledges containing—among other things—the engraved flatware.
The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of a missionary family in the Belgian Congo begins with a chapter called “The Things We Carried,” in which a mother strives to pack everything she thinks the family will need for her husband’s one-year posting in Africa. Mrs. Price is almost thwarted by the airline’s weight restriction until she realizes it only applies to luggage, not people; her four daughters fly across the Atlantic wearing all their underwear, several dresses apiece, and overcoats with “essential” objects hidden beneath them. Among the necessities are four Betty Crocker cake mixes—one for each daughter’s birthday. These cake mixes quickly become a symbol of how utterly mistaken the American family is about every cultural assumption they make—usually with devastating results. Banging a brick of humidity-soaked Betty Crocker mix against the stove on the day of her oldest daughter’s birthday, Mrs. Price laments, “We brought all the wrong things” (p.65).
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know that Cheryl Strayed did a lot of research about what to pack for her 1,000-mile trek up the Pacific Crest trail. With the help of the good people of R.E.I., she selected the best possible equipment—backpack, tent, sleeping bag, water purifier, camp stove, etc.—but she did not factor in her ability to carry it. “I simply thought that if I added up all the things I needed to go backpacking,” she wrote, “it would equal a weight I could carry” (p. 43). After walking 135 miles “hunched in a remotely upright position” under a pack that resembled a Volkswagen Beetle, she encountered another hiker who helped her thin her possessions ruthlessly. Left behind were things like her foldable saw, binoculars, flash for a never-used camera, and even deodorant “whose powers [she] had overestimated” (p. 106). Most interesting to me, however, were the things she chose to keep: Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories, Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, and her own journal.
I recently acquired a gently used coffee-table book called Expeditions Unpacked: What the Great Explorers Took into the Unknown. It is absolutely fascinating. Of course, it details a lot of high-tech gear: ultra-light this and extra-warm that, gizmos and gadgets and whatnot. What really intrigued me, however, were the oddities that various explorers chose to pack. To highlight just a few:
- In 1889, Nelly Bly traveled around the world in fewer than Jules Verne’s fictional 180 days, bringing champagne, a jar of cold cream, and a monkey named McGinty.
- In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl made the voyage of the Kon-Tiki—Peru to Polynesia by raft—along with a guitar, painting supplies, and a Spanish speaking parrot.
- In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary achieved the first ascent of Everest bolstered by 38 pounds of Kendal Mint Cake (a sugary energy bar).
- From 1994 to 2007, Jason Lewis circumnavigated the globe entirely by human power. During 73 days pedaling alone across the pacific, he was kept company by comic books, cabbages, and letters from home.
- In 2016, Rev. Fedor Konyukhov—an Orthodox priest—made the world’s fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe by hot air balloon, bearing icons of St. Nicolas & the Blessed Virgin Mary.
As I ponder these stories, it strikes me that the objects packed can be roughly divided into tried-and-true essentials, comfort items, and ridiculous attachments. These categories work for our metaphorical packing as well, but let’s take them in reverse order:
1) Ridiculous Attachments
I recognize that “ridiculous” may be too strong a word here; mostly I’m thinking about the officers of the Franklin expedition, dragging all that engraved flatware around the Arctic. The same word could apply, however, to Mrs. Price’s Betty Crocker mixes and my Whitman Samplers. What holds these examples together is the answer to the unspoken question “Why on earth did you bring that?” We get into trouble when we think there is only one way to do a thing. Officers of the British Navy dining without their family-crested flatware; an American family celebrating a kid’s birthday without a cake; a guest arriving without a thoughtful gift: unthinkable!
We may laugh, but we may also have our own ridiculous attachments: assumptions that things can only be done one way. Think of the (potentially) burdensome traditions we may have surrounding holidays: what decorations must be put up; what dishes must be used; who must celebrate where, when. Think of the judgments we may make about how younger or older relatives live: people whose choices and values do not precisely match our own. Think of the possessions we may cart from move to move without ever unboxing: things we wouldn’t even remember we owned if someone else quietly slipped them into a donation bin. What would it be like to let go of some of these assumptions and attachments?
What would it be like to let go of some of these assumptions and attachments?
2) Comfort Items
In the stories above, I am struck by the curious choices people made about what to pack when traveling light was of the essence. Surely, Nelly Bly could have traveled faster without the monkey, and Thor Heyerdahl did not need a guitar to paddle his raft to Polynesia. In situations where every ounce mattered, Cheryl Stayed dragged two books and a journal 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, while Rev. Konyukhov accommodated a pair of icons in his balloon. Unlike the unthinking assumptions made in the first category, these comfort items seem to have been very deliberate choices.
A common thread is that they are all about connection. Little McGinty was a companion to Nelly Bly, but he probably facilitated encounters with strangers as well. (Just think how many people you meet walking a cute dog; now imagine it with a monkey!) Heyerdahl’s guitar and Strayed’s books connected them to culture, to beauty, and to the reality of their own lives beyond the immediate duress of their journeys. And Konykhov’s icons were a tangible reminder of the Communion of Saints that accompanied him through weariness and danger.
Here, I need to distinguish between what provides abiding comfort vs. what is merely comfortable. My sofa is comfortable. Netflix is comfortable. Eating a tub of chocolate chip cookies is comfortable (though my jeans may not be, later). Bingeing on cookies and Netflix from my sofa, however, does not bring me abiding comfort, because it does not connect me to anything. Having a meaningful conversation with a friend at a distance; getting outside for a walk on a beautiful day; carving out prayer time in the morning: these connections bring abiding comfort. Why do I so easily forget to “pack” them?
I need to distinguish between what provides abiding comfort vs. what is merely comfortable.
3) Tried-and-True Essentials
The great explorers chose their supplies wisely. Sir Edmund Hillary had custom-made boots, triple-layered gloves, and open-circuit oxygen regulators, but expedition-specific gear was not always so high-tech. For example, Hillary’s mint cakes provided easily-digestible nutrition at altitudes that slowed down his digestive system, and Jason Lewis ate one cabbage leaf a day to stave off scurvy during his long Pacific crossing.
Most of our journeys in life will not call for that degree of specificity. We are headed into the unknown, after all; we need all-purpose essentials. I want to suggest, therefore, that our most tried-and-true “gear” is comprised mostly of attitudes. My ideal metaphorical backpack is crammed with compassion (for myself as well as others), flexibility, lightheartedness, generosity, perseverance, and a sense of humor. Covering it all like a giant rain poncho is my trust in “the one companion of my endless life” (in the words of Tagore), this Jesus who said “Behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) and meant it.
Our most tried-and-true “gear” is comprised mostly of attitudes.
What attitudes will prepare you to meet the unknown with grace?
This year is still young, the road stretching out before us to the misty horizon. If we would walk it faithfully and well, we must pack carefully. Though few us of can bring ourselves to “take nothing for the journey,” we can secure our attitudes, weigh our abiding comforts, and jettison at least some of our assumptions about the way things have to be. Then, like the early disciples, we can travel swiftly and lightly along the path God unfolds before us.
Come, and you will see.