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The Art of Packing a Camel

8 January 2013 2 Comments

Riding a camel at an oasis near Al Ain.

Riding a camel at an oasis near Al Ain.

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow. — T. S. Eliot from Journey of the Magi

Four years ago today, on Epiphany, I walked resolutely (so says my journal) out of the retreat house dining room and into the Spiritual Exercises. Like Eliot’s magus, I had had a long journey there, though it required not that I follow a star, but instead have the stars in my life align. One by one, the pieces had fallen into place: a sabbatical leave in the spring semester, space left in the January 30-day retreat, kids’ schedules. And so, by what amounted to a minor miracle, on the last day of the year I found myself packing a duffel and driving (north)east.

The Exercises are designed to flow back into everyday life, what some call “the fifth week”. For me, the Exercises truly began not when I walked out of the dining room, but when I started jotting a list of things to pack: this was my zeroth week. I packed with the First Principle and Foundation tacked up on my bulletin board: “And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.”

The choice of a composition of place and Gospel text for these meditations was obvious, for at least in December, it was hard to pack without having the magi hovering over my shoulder. What exactly goes into your camel’s saddlebags? What do you take on a journey to pay homage to a King, to meet God in the flesh, to walk with Jesus in the Exercises? And what do you rid yourself of before you leave?

In the end I took very little: two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans, snow boots — for the ways were surely deep and the weather sharp where I was going — and my knitting. I still took too much. Four translations of the Psalms. Four? And a set of watercolors that I never once touched.

I confess I still find it hard to be a minimalist packer in a culture where big cars and bigger box stores make it easy to buy in bulk, where spectators routinely roll tents and and chairs and packed coolers across the athletic fields for an afternoon, and a trip to the mall with a small child requires more gear than your average camel could cart. Their subtexts are difficult for me to tune out: Don’t run out. Be prepared. Keep your options open.

In themselves, these desires are not evils. My family’s life runs more smoothly when the household doesn’t run out of laundry detergent or toilet paper; my students are well served when I have everything I need for the day’s demonstration tucked into my teaching bag. Yet I worry that I so insulate myself from needs that it becomes difficult for me to grasp that everything I have comes from and returns to God. Even the everyday things like laundry detergent.

So four years later I find myself returning to the contemplations of my zeroth week — even when I pack so much as my lunch. I ask the questions that the magi must have faced with a long journey ahead, where the weight of what you carry could — quite literally — drain the life from your camels. Where you might have to sit on what you had packed, so that with each passing mile the lumps and edges of your luggage gives you, as well as your camels, galls. Where balance is not a metaphor, but a hard reality.

To choose to travel in this way is to make manifest that I do not know what the journey will bring. It is to practice trust in the workings of the Spirit. It is to grasp that empty spaces are opportunities, not to stash yet another gadget to be better prepared for some eventuality, but to be able to stow an unforeseen gift given along the way. That what I bring in my saddlebags is not just for myself, but much is meant to be left with those I meet.

I learned on the Exercises that there is an art to packing a camel. One I can keep practicing, even if the journey is only to my office, and my saddlebags hang not on the sides of a camel, but on the back of my bike.

Listen to T.S. Eliot read his poem Journey of the Magi here.
Full disclosure, while I have (once) ridden an actual camel, I’ve never packed one.


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  • Denise said:

    I’ve been doing some reading about the Camino de Santiago, and similar lessons are shared by pilgrims there concerning their backpacks. One must carry everything needed and usually finds that the needs are much less than expected.

    Thank you for sharing this reflection, Michelle.

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  • Michelle Francl-Donnay (author) said:

    One of my ‘classmates’ on the Exercises was going from there to walk the Camino — that is the advanced course in packing your camel!

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