My Sanctuary, Meng Shu Ch’ing, Chinese, Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1643
On the low wall of my garden
There stands a tiny shrine,
In the shadow of the trees.
When I am weary of this sad world,
And of man’s turmoil and strife,
I steal off to my shrine among the trees.
There, with silent prayer and incense,
I find my soul again –
And thank Heaven for my shrine among the trees.
Several years ago I was on a wilderness trip in Montana with a men’s group. There were twelve of us, plus the outfitter, Tom and his wife, Joan, and a wrangler who took care of the horses and mules. The pack mules carried all our stuff—the tents and food and so forth. The horses carried us.
One day the outfitter, Tom, invited us to climb a nearby mountain with the horses. A few of the guys decided to stay at the camp and do some fly fishing and as the rest of us were on the horses headed for the trail head John called over to me, “Make sure you get what you came for.”
I knew what he meant, but it was good to be reminded–to be fully present to this experience. That little reminder more than a decade ago has stayed with me.
I remember the ride from the campsite to the trailhead, thinking how fortunate I was to be on this trip in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. I remember thinking about my father, who had died several years prior to that trip—thinking how he would have loved to experience something like this. He never got to do it much traveling.
I remember thinking that he wanted me and my brothers and sisters to be able to have a better life than he had as a laborer. This experience was part of that kind of ‘better life.’
I found myself thinking that I was doing this for him—in his memory. John’s admonition: “Make sure you get what you came for,” prompted me to think about that, and without his reminder I probably would not have thought about it that way..
In this sermon I’d like to pass on John’s little gift to me that day–to prompt you to think about what it means to you, on this day, to “Make sure you get what you came for.”
(Sometimes I think there should be someone who attends every birth and says to the newborn, “Make sure you get what you came for!”)
Back to the men’s group: we called our trip a ‘vision quest,’ inspired by the Native American tradition. We designed the trip to provide a fresh encounter with nature, hoping to re-connect to a larger spirit—an inner spirit. Each of us had our unique set of reasons why we wanted to spend ten days in the wilderness with a group of men.
We talked about these things around the campfire at night, or sitting on a log eating our lunch on the trail during the day. Some of us were looking for answers to some deep questions with which we were struggling at the time—we were looking for solutions to troubling issues in our lives: divorce, re-marriages, raising children, job-related issues, parent-related concerns, etc.
Some came simply to sharpen a sense of awareness of the natural world and to calm the inner world—we shared in common the need to get away from day-to-day demands of work and commitments to family and friends. We were open to new revelation—new insights, so we made time during those ten days for some solitude.
In a very real sense, then, it was a religious pilgrimage–a search for the Holy Grail–our pursuit of some inner truth and the hope of finding a renewed sense of purpose. That’s the quest.
When John called, “Make sure you get what you came for,” I was reminded why I was there and what I hoped to find on this trip. As I’ve reflected on that day I’ve come to realize that all the things we wanted on our ‘vision quest’ are things we all want and need in our lives all the time.
John’s little reminder turned out to be a memorable moment.
That particular day turned out to be an exciting adventure. Tom had never been on that particular mountain, but he was a skilled explorer—we trusted his leadership.
We reached the top of the mountain about noon. We got off the horses and sat on the ground to have lunch. We were above the tree line, so there were no logs to sit on. It was surprisingly cold for an August day, and within a few minutes, as we sat relishing the food and the panorama, the weather suddenly changed—the wind whipped up, the clouds moved in, and it started to snow.
Before we moved back down the mountain Watts Wacker asked me to recite Chief Yellow Lark’s prayer. It was a perfect setting, an exhilarating moment–with the wind whipping around I said:
“O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.”
I realized, even as I spoke Chief Yellow Lark’s words, that his prayer is a perfect summary of what we had come for—to hear the voice of ‘the Great Spirit’ that gives us life—to hear that voice ‘in the wind,’ which is the root of the word for ‘spirit,’ and ‘spiritual,’ and ‘inspiration.’
“I come before you one of your many children,” he said. We were there to become as a child, in the best sense—to get back in touch with the earth, to get back in touch with the child in each of us, and to be reminded of that thing we call humility, acknowledging that we are ‘small and weak and need to find the necessary ‘strength and wisdom’ to move through the years.
We came to walk in beauty—to ‘behold the red and purple sunsets, and to look for some inner wisdom that would help us to see the lesson that is ‘hidden in every leaf and rock,’ and to seek strength for the hard times, and to be reminded that the strength we need is not for competition—not to be greater than others, but to recognizing and ‘do battle’ with the greatest enemy, the one who lives inside.
We came to get back in touch with the earth—from which we have come and back to which we will return, each of us in our own time. In the wilderness you acknowledge our mortality, and by acknowledging it, you come to accept it. Reconnecting with nature enables us to accept the undeniable fact that we are part of Nature.
‘Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.’
Sometimes a journey helps us to get away—to leave, to vacate; we call it a vacation, past participle of vacare, to be empty.
But the idea of traveling as an escape, thinking things will be better somewhere else, is a reminder of Emerson’s famous comment in his essay on Self-Reliance:
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise…at home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. …My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, is an essay on Emerson’s assertion: ‘my giant goes with me.’ His wonderful title says it all! The book provides guidance on how to find the inner peace we all need.
It should be noted that Emerson did a lot of traveling, both to Europe and in every part of America where he could find an audience for his lectures. He wasn’t opposed to travel—he was opposed to the attempt to try to escape from the what Chief Yellow Lark called ‘the greatest enemy, myself.’
Alison Luterman wrote an essay (La Peña Goes to Cuba) about traveling to Cuba with her chorus, La Pena. She says, in part, “I wonder what the customs official in Santiago de Cuba thought as our group of 26 bedraggled Norteamericanos (and one Chileana and one Chicana) singers and musicians checked in, lugging bongoes, guitars, tambourines, toilet paper, syringes, crayons and pens, latex gloves, and 6,000 condoms.
“He tried to keep a straight face as he opened one box and came upon the cache of ‘personal appliances’ which were donations we were planning to leave with Cuban AIDS health educators. The collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago has left Cuba cash-poor, and the continuing U.S. embargo makes it excruciatingly difficult for Cubans to get medical supplies, clothing, paper, pens, and other necessities of modern life. Although the La Peña chorus’ official reason for visiting Santiago was to participate in the third international festival of choruses, we also wanted to bring some supplies in as a gesture of support.
“For personal use?” the official asked the musician who had agreed to haul the condoms with her luggage.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Well,” he shrugged, and waved her through. “Have fun in Cuba!”
“And we did, although it was more than that. I don’t know what to say to friends who ask, ‘How was Cuba?’ It was moving when people received us with open smiles and tears in their eyes, declaring over and over that they didn’t confuse the government of the U.S. with the heart of its people.
“The first time we heard one of the Cuban choruses sing, we wanted to put our collective tail between our legs and slink home. They sang with an artistry and professionalism that made us feel about an inch high. As it turns out, they were professional. Poor as Cuba is, it still supports its artists; in Havana there is the National Chorus, under the direction of a beautiful woman named Digna Guerra, and Santiago has its own professional chorus also. The Coro Nacional of Havana had requested an encuentro with us, so we went to the Friendship House in Santiago. They sang and we were reduced to tears by the purity of their voices singing as one voice, and by our knowledge of the daily difficulties our country was causing them. None of us wanted to sing after their performance, but the event was supposed to be an ‘intercambio’, an exchange, so reluctantly, with tears streaming down our faces, we got up and faced them. …
“Our spokesperson, Dickie Magidoff, who has been with the group for over ten years, stepped forward and said, ‘We’ve come here as a gesture of solidarity and support. We represent many, many Americans who do not agree with the blockade and who want friendship and peace between our two countries.’
“Then we sang for them. We sang “Harriet Tubman”, and “Usted Pregunta Porque Cantamos” (“You Ask Us Why We Sing”), whose words were written by the poet Victor Jara who was murdered in the stadium in Chile after Allende fell. We sang a song for Nelson Mandela, and when we looked up they were crying also. …
“Cultural differences, political differences, and our self-consciousness about musical skill all fell away as we faced each other, crying. There was a little space of floor between them, the audience, and us, the performers. A minute later there was no space as both groups surged forward, embracing, shaking hands, asking, ‘What is your name?’ …
“They thanked us and thanked us for our performance. We were overwhelmed and found it hard to accept compliments from such accomplished musicians.
“Listen,” one woman said in Spanish, taking me by the hand.
‘Singing is done not with the mouth, but with the heart.’ She pointed to her chest for emphasis.
“For me, this was the crowning flower of the many gifts the Cubans gave us.”
They got what they came for: they made the trip to Cuba to sing, and to bring gifts of some of the necessities Cubans go without because of the blockade by the U.S.A. But they got more than they came for, and that’s an important point.
That’s often the way it is when you go somewhere to do something and you not only get what you came for, but more. You may be so focused on your agenda that you’re not open to the surprises that come to you unplanned. Get what you came for, but be open to those wonderful little surprises!
Have you ever had the experience of walking into a room and forgetting what you came for? Or you’ve opened the refrigerator or cabinet and stood there wondering what it was you were in search of?
Do you remember why you decided to read this sermon? Did you ‘get what you came for?’
Emerson put some of the responsibility on the listener/reader when he said, “I’m aware that there is a good ear in some listeners that can draw supplies to virtue from indifferent nutriment, and though the prayers and sermons may be poorly spoken they may be wisely heard.”
One more point: we’re often in too much of a hurry. One of my mantras is, “You are not in a hurry. You have plenty of time. Slow down.”
Simon and Garfunkel sang about it in The 59th Street Bridge Song—remember? Maybe you can sing it now (as we sang together to end the sermon.)
Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.
What cha knowing?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growing.
Ain’t cha got no rhymes for me?
Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all it’s petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.
“Make sure you get what you came for.”