Monday, February 28, 2011

Pointing Upwind

I dreamed Sunday night that I was walking the Way of St. James, en route to Santiago de Compostela, while pulling a sailboat behind me on a trailer. The sailboat was at least 25 feet long, and for some reason the rope or halyard or whatever you call it by which I was pulling the boat kept getting in my way. This made it difficult to keep up with my fellow pilgrims, who trudged on ahead of me. When we stopped for the night and my boat was at rest beside our tent, my fear was that someone would steal it.

This post is dedicated, with apologies, to my pastor, who preached yesterday on God and mammon and used a sailboat as a symbol. I’m afraid, Father, that my dream played havoc with your poetry.

Perhaps the joke is that, while my pastor in his homily recalled his days as a sailor (who knew?), I have always been a contemptible sailor. My family snidely refers to me as “Burt Dow, Deepwater Man,” for the day I rented a sailboat on a lake at Disneyworld (of course I had experience, I told the rental lady in the cabana) and quickly ran it on the rocks. But we are going far off course here.

What struck me about my pastor’s homily was this. He said, and I all but quote, that man is made for service. He said this not as a theological tenet or a moral imperative, but rather scientifically, as though describing our biological or genetic make-up.Something about this thought pierced behind the screen of mind on which homilies usually project themselves, on which screen I can watch the homily, rapt even, usually at least interested, but without its touching me. This thought—I am made for service—hit home.

I thought of the Baltimore catechism which, as a convert of late vintage I never learned, and the passage—

What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

I had always thought that this was a teaching of the Church, a bit of heavy-handed moral instruction, toward which I felt a certain repugnance, as though a second-grade class full of nasty nuns—they in the chairs, I pilloried at the blackboard—were ordering me to do something that was not only not fun but against my nature.

Now, suddenly, listening to Father’s homily, I thought, no, that’s wrong, my nature is to serve! I am hard-wired for service. I can’t not serve. The only question is what to serve, God or mammon. There is no third option. This changes things.

The sailboat plowed into the homily about two-thirds of the way through, when Father recalled being taught to “point” at a distant target—a buoy, a lighthouse, an outcropping of rock—in order to keep on course. Given my experience at Disneyworld this is only one of several skills I still require to survive as a sailor. But perhaps the message of my dream is tied up just in this.

How long have I hauled useless things and interests with me on my journey, things and interests I am no good at, things and interests that only slow me down but that somehow my mind or ego or ridiculous search for perfection won’t let go of? All those useless novels by my bed. Worries about, efforts to improve my body beyond its fragile parameters. Friendships, assumed like burdens, that never ever feed me or even my so-called friends.

The halyard trips me up. I fall behind my companions. Probably I will never be a passable sailor, but I do love walking, and one of the these days, if I keep following the signs, and especially my companions on the way, I pray that I will reach Santiago de Compostela, and beyond that the world’s end.

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