The book of our going
Three days ago, the wife and I went to a book sale offering big discounts on over a million volumes.
We went straight to the literature section, hoping to find a number of surprises. We saw none, but perhaps because we did not stay there long enough, what with the huge crowd and the great number of books.
The wife and I left with just a few titles — I with three slim collections of poetry (Donne, Burns, Tennyson) and a novel (Ondaatje’s “The English Patient”) and she with two novels (Woolf’s “The Waves” and Allende’s “The Japanese Lover”), as well as an anthology of children’s poems.
While we were queuing before the cashier, I asked myself, “What book would I take with me if I were to go on a long journey?”
I posed the same question to the wife, and she answered, after a pause, that she would carry a haiku collection by the Zen poet and beggar, Santoka Teneda.
I was tempted to say, in response, that for myself I would have “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” the Poverello being, I suppose, apart from the Japanese poet’s drinking, Teneda’s closest Christian counterpart.
A book can serve as crutch, and when boredom sets in or the journey stalls one can withdraw from the real world and escape into a work of fiction or non-fiction, or even poetry, although I acknowledge that an occasional dip into an inspiring book can brace one up.
As part of the belongings a traveller carries, a book adds, no matter how light, to his burden, to the sum of all the things that slow him down, and, for a truly light travel, should go with the items to offload.
When he sent the twelve apostles out on a mission (to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick), Jesus enumerated the things they should not take. As Mark narrates in his Gospel, he “instructed them 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.”
Jesus’ point was that the apostles should completely rely on the protective care of God and the kindness of strangers.
This did not mean, however, that they should not have with them the most basic gear for the journey — a walking stick for support and defense, sandals to protect the feet from the scorching desert road, and a second tunic as fallback in case of a soaked or ripped first.
Books, as we know them, did not exist in Jesus’ time. Writing was done at great expense, mostly of Old Testament books, on papyrus scrolls 30 or 40 feet long.
Obviously, the apostles could not take these bulky scrolls with them (they were mostly kept in the synagogues).
But they had to equip themselves with what was most important — the instruction they had received from Jesus, the admonitions and parables, which were unwritten and which they knew by heart. Above all, they had constantly to keep fresh and alive their experience of the Lord.
Which was the book that Francis had with him as he walked the streets of Assisi. Which is the book that I hope always to carry with me on every journey.
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