Thursday, 6 October 2011

"Ithaca": The Beautiful Journey & National Poetry Day

Today 6th October 2011 is National Poetry Day. Due to this I thought I would publish this reflection inspired by one of my favourite poems “Ithaca” by Constantine P Cavafy. Here read by Sean Connery.

No one can honestly say that can they predict the future, where life will lead us. What we will end up doing or where we will end up going and who we will end up with. We do not know who we will meet along the way and we don’t know what these folk will give or perhaps take from our lives. Some people we will meet only once and never again; some will stay with us a short while and others will be with us until the day our bodies breathe their final breath, but we do not know who these people are the day we are born.

It’s much the same with situations. Some we may experience only once, many we may never experience and others we will continue to experience over and over again. At the beginning of our lives we can not predict what these are and would we really want to even if we could?

I do not personally believe that these are preordained either, before we were born. Do not get me wrong I am not an atheist I have a strong faith in a force that runs through life, that I call God. That said the God of my understanding does not control all life and does allow it to develop freely. For me God offers the Lure of Love to all life but does not control every interaction.

Eight years ago today 6th October 2003 the final stages of a part of my journey were just beginning to end. I entered into what I can only describe as a living hell. Thankfully I came out of this on 10th October 2003 and I have never really been the same man since.

How often have we heard the phrase “Life is a journey”? Sometimes beautiful; sometimes frightening!

For all of us at times just to simply step out into the world takes all the courage we can muster. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges. Fear is always present to stop us to block us along the way.

Human history is littered with stories and adventures inspired by the search for treasure and or wisdom Whether these adventures be Jason and the Argonauts or many of the other Greek tales, Pilgrims Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Lord of the Rings the list is endless. Human history is littered with folk tales and myths which teach us so much about what life is in all its potential both for beauty and horror.

Joseph Campbell who spent years exploring such myths believed that these stories helped us to fully understand how we are often called out into new adventures in our lives. He identified four distinct stages of the journey. The first stage Campbell named “The Call to Adventure”. This he claimed is caused by discontent, which draws us out of the comfort of our lives to risk something new; the second stage is a form of initiation where goes through a series of ordeals that test their mental and physical skills; The third stage is the time of revelation the discovery of truth and treasure; the final stage is the return to one’s community. With wisdom gained and with treasure to share.

Throughout our lives we are constantly called out and challenged to the adventure. I have learnt that in order to succeed in this requires faith in life itself and a sense of openness and courage to overcome the challenges that can come our way. I have learnt that the key is not to bring our own monsters with us along the way and therefore just deal with what we meet on the road.

This I believe is what the poem Ithica is hinting at when it says:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Most of the demons that got in my way a few years back were not real at all, but merely fears created from my own past. They made me afraid to try; therefore I ignored the call to adventure for so long. You see the call itself is not enough, there also needs to be faith in the adventure itself that it will be a joy and one worth taking.

This faith comes naturally to children because they have not yet learnt to fear life. I believe that Jesus his hinting at this in Mark 10 v 15. Here Jesus states:

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 
I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

He is really speaking to his disciples and through this the author of Mark is telling us something of what faith must be, it must have an openness and be an almost innocent faith that the adventure that is life is worth taking. Of course it is talking specifically about Christian faith here, but for me this is a universal principle.

Neither is the call to adventure really about the potential treasure that can be found at the end of it, rather the treasure in it. The  poem Ithaca is certainly hinting at this. It is telling the reader to keep “Ithaca”, the call, in mind. It is also telling us that it’s not really the destination but the adventure itself that is the treasure. It ends by saying:

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means.

The key is the adventure, and to maintain that adventurous spirit. To live with the eyes of and heart of a child, to maintain that sense of awe and wonder that comes so naturally to them. Often in life the greatest gifts can come from the worst horrors, that has certainly been my experience.

How often has it been said that life is what you make it. For me this doesn’t mean you can have whatever you want in life and do whatever your heart desires. In my experience this is not true. That said whatever horrors may be bestowed upon us, something wonderful and beautiful can come from them, if we can only find and maintain that spirit that Jesus saw in children.

As for the destination well who knows the answer to that, certainly not me. I suspect there is more beyond this physical form but I cannot say for certain. In any case that should not stop us from enjoying the adventure we are on now, from learning from it and passing that knowledge on to those we meet further down the road. Where ever it may lead us.

No one can predict the future. I do not believe it has already been written. Personally I think it is better that way. To want to know what will happen is just another form of human vanity that is inspired by a fear without faith.

I’ve grown accustomed to the uncertainty.

Chaos rules ok.


  1. Thanks Danny. I really like that poem too. I first came across Cavafy in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.