A freethinker’s look at two famous journeys

This essay appeared on the Faith page of the Tucson Daily Star on Sunday, August 27, 2023. The URL to it is below.

Travel stories are common fare in newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs. Famous expeditions and weekend getaways to the mountains or the coast make for enticing reading, a way to vicariously slip away for a while from foreboding newscasts or the routines of our daily lives. There are other types of travel stories, however, stories of journeys that have come down to us from ancient times. This essay is about two of them.

The first journey is a story from the New Testament. The Book of Acts tells about Saul of Tarsus who is travelling to Damascus with several companions under orders of authorities in Jerusalem to find and arrest followers of the recently-crucified Jesus. During the journey, he is felled by an immense flash of light. On the ground he hears the voice of Jesus telling him to continue on to Damascus where he will be told what to do. When he rises from the ground he realizes he is blind, but his companions help him finish the trip. After three days, a man named Ananias comes to him, restores his sight, and baptizes him as a Christian. Saul changes his name to Paul and devotes his life to organizing the Christian church, writing several books of the New Testament and becoming the most important Christian after Jesus.

The other journey is not from the Christian Bible but rather is the subject of the famous poem “Ithaka” by Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Ithaka” draws from Homer’s epic story from three millennia ago of the return of Odysseus to his home after the Trojan Wars. Cavafy uses the journey of Odysseus as a metaphor for the journey we each take through life, a journey in which we encounter things both good and bad.

These two starkly different stories offer some insights on life. Paul’s is the more famous by far. From it we get some common expressions such as “scales falling from our eyes,” referring to Paul recovering suddenly from blindness. Another that is sometimes attributed to Paul’s experience is “seeing the light,” which is used to describe a religious conversion but more commonly refers to having a sudden insight. That is similar to another well-known expression from that story, “the road to Damascus,” which refers to a turning point when a person has an unexpected, fundamental change in opinion or attitude. More important than idioms and expressions, though, is that Paul’s experience was unique: he was felled by flash of light causing him to become temporarily blind; he heard the voice of a man whom he despised and knew was dead but who later restored his sight. That caused him to change not just his name but his life.

In contrast, Cavafy’s poem is not a narrative of a unique event which we use to affirm religious faith and from which we get a few expressions to add to our language. Rather it is a lovely and stirring description of how to live. Paul’s journey to Damascus is certainly remarkable, and it is an inspiring story to Christians. Cavafy’s poem is a metaphor about the passage we all make through life, in which he encourages us to savor the experience and take pleasure at whatever our own Ithaca turns out to be. His message is that although Ithaca is our destination, the journey is more important, for it is our life—our days and years pass as the leagues do for Odysseus. As Cavafy reminds us, life is a journey that offers both good and bad, disappointments and successes, but it also offers adventures and epiphanies that are more important than reaching Ithaca.

Some people make frequent trips down their own road to Damascus, back and forth hoping to achieve the same sort of sudden and miraculous insight that fundamentally changed Paul’s life. They end up disappointed when that doesn’t happen, for almost never does change come suddenly in a flash of light or sudden understanding. On the other hand, Cavafy’s poem applies to each person, for we all make a voyage toward our own Ithaca.

The final three verses capture the universality of Cavafy’s message.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Tom Chester describes himself as a freethinker who believes that affiliation with any religious sect is not necessary to leading a moral and ethical life. A common theme in his writing is how to live with kindness and humanity in an increasingly complex and technological society. He is reluctantly retired and lives in Tucson.


Like to reply?