By: Simeon Dumdum Jr. May 27,2017 - 10:59 PM

Journeys fascinate me, especially the journey home.

More than the setting out, I find the coming back more heart tugging

The first has to do with discovery, the second with recovery, and it may be said that, because a true voyage ends in self-knowledge and acceptance, all roads lead to home.

I think of this as I read the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaca.”


The speaker (a person full of wisdom and experience) addresses Odysseus as the latter begins to return to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War.

Homer made an epic, “The Odyssey,” of Odysseus’ voyage back to Ithaca, which took ten years, after the many difficulties put in his way by the god Poseidon, who wanted to punish him.

The poem begins:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

What the speaker wants to convey is that it is the journey that matters, not so much the destination, and so the longer it takes the better, and that the journey would abound in wonder and revelation.

We know from Homer that, in the course of his journey, Odysseus ran across cannibals (Laistrygonians) and one-eyed giants (Cyclops), among the many other monsters supplied by an enraged Poseidon.

The speaker tells Odysseus not to be afraid of them and that in fact he will not find them on his way for “as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, / as long as a rare excitement / stirs your spirit and your body.” The Laistrygonians and Cyclops he will not encounter at all, “unless you bring them along inside your soul, / unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”

He mentions the joys that Odysseus might find on his voyage—a summer morning when he sees harbors for the first time, Phoenician trading stations with many fine things to buy (mother of pearl, coral, amber, ebony, perfumes), and Egyptian cities from whose scholars he can acquire all sorts of knowledge.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Odysseus should remember that Ithaca is the reason for his journey, and, because he must not hurry, he could be old when he gets there, but rich in wisdom and experience, which Ithaca will never be able to give him.

As likely as not, Jesus could have told his disciples something similar before he ascended into heaven. Matthew ends his Gospel with this report:

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’”

This is the official account. But there could have been a preliminary conversation, a sort of goodbye, during which Jesus might have told the disciples this—that they had reached the end of their earthly companionship, and that they would be going home now, to their Ithaca, but this time a broader Ithaca, a home that goes beyond their homes in Galilee and elsewhere.

They would have to find a home in every home and to tell Jesus’ story, their story together, to its occupants, in the hope that they too might join the journey.

There might be tyrants—the equivalent of the Laistrygonians and Cyclops—who might stand up to and even kill them. But these devils could not harm them if they kept their thoughts raised to Jesus, because he would not leave them and would animate and egg them on with the Spirit.

In the end, they would find her poor, their Ithaca, because what earthly home can provide true wealth, but they would not be fooled because, as Cavafy’s poem puts it, “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”

And what Ithaca means is that, if the journey is all that matters, in the end the destination is the story.

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