Philippians 4:10-14, Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34
“Once upon a time there was a man who lived farther north than any of the settlements. He hunted bears every spring on a dog sledge. Once, during the chase, he came upon strange sledge-tracks and made up his mind to seek out the people who had made them. So he set out on his bear hunts the next year earlier than he was wont to do. The third day, he came to houses different in appearance from those to which he was accustomed. But he met with no people; fresh tracks, though showed that the settlement had been only recently left.
“When the bear hunter drove off the following year, he took wood with him, as a gift to the strangers; for he thought they must suffer greatly from the want of wood, as they used narwhals’ tusks for the roof beams of their houses.
“But he did not meet with the strangers on his second visit either. True, the tracks were newer than they had been the last time, but he did not dare to follow them up, and thus put a still greater distance between himself and his own village. He contented himself with burying the wood he had brought with him in the snow near the houses, and then, having presented his gifts, he went home.
“The third year he raised the best team of dogs that he had ever had and, earlier than was his custom, he drove north after bears and the strange people. When at last he reached the village, it was just as it had been the other years: the inhabitants had gone; but in the snow, where he had left his wood, they had hidden a large bundle of walrus tusks. These were the return gifts of the strangers.
“He put them on his sledge and drove back home; but the people who lived north of all other people, he never found.” [The People of the Polar North: A Record, By Knud Rasmussen, 1908, p. 4]
Phil Cousineau introduced me to this tale, in his book, The Art of Pilgrimage. “The beauty of this story is that it encourages us to ask who it is that has been bestowing gifts upon us on our own journeys, then suggests that it is all right if we never find out. Beyond finding the source, is the deep knowing that all beyond the gift is a mystery, a holy mystery, and a gift of God. [Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, p.213]
I bring back only what God gives me. Often when we leave on pilgrimage, we go seeking answers – for grief, for choices we should make in life (two of the most common I have heard). And most often, the pilgrims I know have returned without the answers they sought. But in their encounter with the holy one, they were changed, and the questions no longer mattered so much. Sometimes the questions which propel us to pilgrimage are too small to hold up to an encounter with the holy. The questions bow in the face of the gift of God’s presence. And it is enough.
This fifth tenet of the Pilgrim’s Credo points out one big difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation. On vacation we often take time to shop – to buy post cards, coming-home gifts and art treasures from the wild. Sometimes friends give us lists of things to look for on their behalf. I heard the story of some quilters who traveled together to the national quilt show, each taking one suitcase with them. They returned with 6 suitcases each! Vacations can sometimes weigh us down with things that we want to own.
Pilgrimage asks us to let go of the acquisitive side of our natures. I bring back only what God gives me.
I remember trying to teach my children about the joys of window shopping. I encouraged them to walk by the store windows as if they were in a museum. Enjoy the beauty. Get ideas. Dream. Imagine. But don’t take any money. They did not find the outing satisfying in the least! Window shopping is perhaps a lost art in America. We are a consumer culture.
Pilgrimage asks us to let go of the acquisitive side of our natures, and to let the experience speak for itself, to be its own treasure. I bring back only what God gives me. And often that is only, if one can ever describe it as “only,” being with the Spirit of God.
I heard this tenet of the credo when I read Paul’s thank you note to the Philippians. He does thank them for the gift he received from them, but that seems to be secondary. What he thanks them for is their concern for him. That is what kept him going while he sat in prison, separated from his friends – the assurance of their concern for him. And he was able to receive with gratitude the gift when it came. Yet the gift of their concern was with him all along and it was enough. Paul would have known his blessing as deeply if the money gift had never arrived.
This is the pilgrim life – to be able to live in plenty and in want – and to be content. Pilgrimage teaches us that we can do all things needed, for God accompanies us. I bring back only what God gives me.
This was a rough one for me on my pilgrimage.. I intended to buy my Christmas gifts from the National Parks I visited while I was away. The money I spent would then be used for the benefit of the parks I visited. It was a way of saying, “Thank you,” to the land and to those who care for it.
But I learned to choose intentionally when I was shopping and when I was at a museum, so to speak. I remember in particular, my time at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Shops dot the entire path along the rim trail. Sometimes I went inside, sometimes I did not. Each shop had some beauty of museum quality. Often I stood there for a while. But the hubbub of shoppers quickly sent me back out to the truest beauty of the path and the unimaginable canyon. Nothing on those shelves could possibly hold the gift of that canyon! I bring back only what the canyon gives me.
An even greater struggle was with taking pictures. “Taking.” There’s that word. Not a pilgrimage word. For I bring back only what God gives me. What business did I have to take anything? How did I handle that? Several ways. Sometimes I put my camera away for a while. Part-way through the trip, my camera stopped working and I had only a phone camera, which does not see the same way. I felt the loss, and at the same time, I learned, in the words of Paul, “to be content with whatever I have.”
I also learned to “receive” pictures. Sometimes the animals would pause to let me see them. Their presence was a gift. And I often bowed with gratitude.
The gift of taking pictures, I have learned, is that the camera opens my eyes to see things others pass by. That too is a gift – to see the hidden life or message or beauty in a thing. Such a gift – to feel like I get the inside scoop because I am seeing with another lens.
The other struggle was the family penchant I inherited to collect rocks. Not just to be a collector, but because these rocks have meaning. I remember the evening when I sat down among the rocks and my attention was drawn to one particular stone. I saw it because I sat down right next to it. I could see it. And it seemed to call to me.
A native man from northern Michigan asked a group: “How many of you have ever walked along the beach and picked up a single stone?” All the hands always went up. We all know the experience of picking up a stone, putting it in our pocket, taking it home, or carrying it for a while to feel its weight in our hand. The man had a follow-up question: “Why did you choose that stone?” after the silent pause he explained, “Because that stone called out to you. We don’t pick up stones on the street or on a hillside. But the stones at the edge of the water – they have been carried there, have been left there. They have felt the motion of the water. They are hungry to move…. So they call out to us.” There is spirit in everything touched by the Creator. Everything has a voice, if only we have the ears to hear. [Kent Nerburn, Voices in the Stones, p. 139-140]
Byrd Baylor has a book written for children called, Everybody Needs a Rock. In it a little girl gives her ten rules for finding a rock. Rule number three is this: “Bend over. More. Even more. You may have to sit on the ground with your head almost touching the earth. You have to look a rock right in the eye. Otherwise, don’t blame me if you can’t find a good one.” Finding my rock was like that. Down on the ground, really close to the rock, I could see its beauty and hear it call to me. But don’t worry if, when you see my rock, it is just a rock. Sometimes rocks speak only to me, or only to you. That is what is why everybody needs a rock. It is my friend rock.
I bring back only what God gives me.
How do we know that God is giving us something? At Night Prayer, we use the practice of examining our day. The first step is to review the day and ask, when did God seem close today? Which moments gleamed brighter, gave you pause, or challenged all your previous beliefs? How did you happen upon these moments? Did you plan them or were they serendipitous? Did you feel any strange visitations of joy? Can you recapture them now that you are home? Give thanks.
Through this kind of daily practice, Ignatius had learned that the often overlooked moments could be brought home to the soul as gifts. As we review our day, we can bring home what God has given us. That gift moment is still there for us to receive, to take into our souls and into our lives.
We bring back only what God gives us. And that is a lot, when we pay attention. And it is enough.