Thursday, June 03, 2010

Column: Traveling Essentials

This piece has its genesis in two blog posts: The Role of Mature Females and The Things I Carry — or don't and in the ritual cleaning out of my purse before I travel, for retreat or not.

In the end, I walked 5 some miles, traveled another 350 miles on 3 trains and 2 subway lines, carrying only what I hoped I truly needed. It was enough to know its weight the last half mile I walked, but not so much that I couldn't carry it all the way.

The full blessing poem For the traveler (from To Bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donohue) is a wonderfully Ignatian blessing for the start of retreat, or really any trip to spaces outside your usual orbit.

The photo is of the front door to the Jesuit's Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, MA and my bags, packed now to return home.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times, 3 June 2010.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
— Mk. 10:25

“The mature female is perfect to carry the transmitter,” the sonorous voice of the Shark Week narrator drifts through the doorway of the kitchen. The scientist in me spent a moment wondering why tracking a female shark was important to the experiment, but the mother in me knew this made perfect sense.

Of course a mature female — shark or human — would be the one tagged to carry anything. I can’t count the number of times one of the guys in my house has handed me something with the words, “Can you throw this in your purse for me?” It’s already bulging at the seams, so why not add one more thing?

Before I went away last week, I cleaned out my purse. It was both a practical and a spiritual exercise. Practical for certain, I would have a couple of long walks and three changes of trains; a light load was essential. But spiritual?

In his poem, “For the Traveler,” priest and hermit John O’Donohue suggests that a traveler
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you ...
The clearing out of my bag was a chance to ask what holds me down, what prevents my moving in freedom.

Some Scripture scholars have suggested that the “eye of the needle” was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, through which a fully loaded camel could not pass. Like the young man that Jesus is lovingly advising about what it will take to travel the road to the kingdom of God, there is much in my purse that I would be shocked to be told to leave behind.

Like most mothers, I suspect, I have something for almost every eventuality in my bag: cell phone, snacks and water bottle, tissues, band-aids, pens and paper, sunscreen and lip balm, safety pins and paper clips, amusements (to keep the kids from going crazy) and a rosary (to keep me from going crazy). Add in the old receipts, lists of things to do from weeks ago and ... I doubt that I would fit through a narrow gate, any more than a loaded camel would.

I carry things to clean, feed, heal, communicate, record, hold together, protect, distract, engage. Stuff I think I might need in a pinch to save or be saved, stuff that creeps thoughtlessly in, slowly and inexorably adding ballast to the bottom of my bag.

Asked to empty out his treasury of stuff, the young man left shocked and grieving, and the disciples wondered if anyone could make it through the door. Jesus reassures them that while they can’t save themselves — no matter how much they have or carry with them — God, and God alone, can save them.

Emptying out my purse was a shock in many ways (the crumbs in the bottom could feed a colony of ants). But its most potent effect was the reminder that no matter how much I have tucked in there, ultimately, I can’t save myself or even those I love. For only in God is there true hope of rescue.

I shook the crumbs out of the bottom, tossed the crumpled reminders of errands long completed and put back a much pared down collection of “essentials.” No camels will be necessary to lug it along on my travels, I should be able to sail through the gates to the Boston T. The one thing I added weighs nothing; in fact it lightens my load: the knowledge that nothing I carry is essential — except my faith in God.

Defend us, Lord, against every distress so that unencumbered in body and soul, we may devote ourselves to your service in freedom and joy. We make our prayer through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. — Closing prayer for Morning Prayer, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.


  1. This column immediately reminded me of when we were in Rome - 10 years ago this week! - and my husband's wallet, inside a velcro-ed pocket, was lifted while we were in a train station -- looking like prime targets, Americans speaking frustrated English and turning in all directions as we tried to figure out the train schedule.

    Poor pickin's for the thief, however. All five passports and all our lira were buried in the bottom of the bag nestled securely on my shoulder and against my hip, under the day's bread, cheese, and water bottles!

    S/ge did ruin our visit to the Pantheon, however, as we had to spend the morning in the Amex office taking care of stolen credit cards.

    So while I know I really don't need to carry anything, I would like to go back and see the Pantheon!

  2. I have a few trips planned before this month is over, quite unlike me and my stay at home self, but I have the desire so I am traveling. Quiet time waits till August. will try to travel lightly.