The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)
A dilemma gripped me as I prepared to walk from Sevilla to Santiago de Compostela this summer along the Via de la Plata – the ancient route that Romans, Moors, Spaniards, and pilgrims have traveled for centuries. I estimated that it would take me about forty days of walking to cover the distance of just over a thousand kilometers (or 621 miles). I had carefully worked out (I thought) how much I needed to carry in my pack: just a little more than two changes of clothes (one for walking, and one to change into while the others were washed in the sink and dried in the sun); a pair of Tevas to wear when the hiking shoes came off; rain gear just in case; a corkscrew without question: a Kindle loaded with books to read during the down time. But the dilemma was posed by my walking partner, a priest from London, who assured me by email that he’d be bringing a Bible and a Prayer Book in order to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer each day. Ugh!
I did not want to carry these books with me. I pray these Offices all the time here at home, aided greatly by the custom we have at Saint Mark’s of saying the Offices daily in church, but when I travel, my commitment to this discipline is not so good, especially if it involves carrying two books, that even in their lightweight version (both books bound together, printed on light, onionskin-like paper) weighs one pound, twelve ounces. Plus, I already had both books loaded onto my Kindle. But I knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do the kind of flipping around, back and forth that is required in both books when you use these forms of prayer. The Kindle would be impractical. So, would I bring this brick of a book and carry it with me?
As I prepared to leave for Spain, this question nagged at me, as I tried to trim more weight from my backpack, to make the walking easier over such a long distance. Out of a sense of duty, and in order to avoid shame I decided to bring the book.
Once I began to walk, I regretted the decision almost immediately. My walking partner was much more committed to the practice of the Daily Office while traveling than I was. Oh, I began and ended my days with prayer. I spent hours of walking, dedicating my footsteps to people, worries, issues I wanted to pray about. I made it my habit to say the Angelus as each day’s walking began, and to punctuate each day with those prayers as the hours went on. With wide open space in front of me, and no one around to hear, I’d sing the Magnificat to the settings of various composers, bouncing back and forth from the treble and tenor lines, filling in the other parts in my head.
But the heat of southern Spain, and the weariness on arrival at the end of each day’s walking, and the preoccupation of washing my clothes, and planning the next day’s walk, and tending to meals, more often than not distracted me from praying the Daily Office. My prayer was internal and impromptu, and in no way stunted by my failure of discipline. I was praying more than usual, not less. And more freely, too, covering more ground, being (I hoped) more attentive to the Spirit, listening more than I was accustomed to. And going to Mass whenever I could.
My walking partner was much more regular in his practice of the Daily Office than I was, and quickly abandoned hope of saying the prayers together with me each day. He could often be found, book in hand, faithfully and silently reciting his psalms, when I was off procuring wine and cheese and chorizo for the evening meal.
But still the book was in my pack. And for a while I kept it up on the top, in the somewhat careful order I had of packing everything. The Bible-Prayer Book combo was one of the last things to go into the pack, making it about as accessible as my sunscreen. But eventually practicality won out over good intentions, and the red brick of a book migrated to the bottom of the rucksack, where on some days it wasn’t removed at all.
About two weeks into the walk, I decided that my packing had not been as strategically planned as I thought it had been, and I actually had some extra clothes – things intended for colder weather that I was clearly not going to need under the heat of the Spanish sun. I put together a little bundle of things and prepared to send them back to my hosts in Madrid, where I could pick them up at the end of my walk.
And as I was about to leave for the post office, I looked at the red brick of a book - the Word of God, and the prayers of the church, with its little ribbons hanging out. And oh, how I wanted to be rid of it! This was my chance to lighten my load. Books are heavy, and this one in particular. And it’s not like I was using it. And I had the Kindle if I really needed anything. But somehow, I could not bring myself to remove the book from my backpack and get rid of it. I knew that a significant part of me did not want to carry this thing with me, but some other insistent part of me couldn’t help but see the book as a symbol, the carrying of which was more important than its use.
I began to think of the weight of this book in my pack as something I needed to carry, and wanted to carry. I had noticed that in Spanish cathedrals you often find, on one of the transept walls, near the doors that are used for daily entry, an extremely large mural of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ-child across the river.
Remember the legend that St. Christopher, on converting to Christian faith, sought to serve Christ, and was instructed by a hermit to assist people in the crossing of a dangerous river. One day, a little child came to the riverside in need of Christopher’s help. “Christopher lifted the child in his great arms, placed him on his shoulder, and started across, staff in hand. At every step the load grew more burdensome, and Christopher came near losing his balance in the rushing water. On reaching the other bank, he put the boy down, saying, ‘Child, thou hast put me in dire peril, and hast weighed so heavily on me that if I had borne the whole weight of the world upon my shoulders it could not have burdened me more heavily.’ The boy answered, ‘Wonder not, Christopher, for not only hast thou borne the whole world on thy shoulders, but Him who created the world.’”“[i]
And so, I began to identify with St. Christopher just a little bit, and to think of my book as a holy passenger that I could not forsake, and to see it as a matter, not only of honor, but of faith, to carry this little red book, weighing one pound twelve ounces, with me among the other things that were part of my load. Which at last brings me to the Gospel reading today, in which we hear the apostles beg of Jesus, “O Lord, increase our faith!” This is a sentiment, a request, a prayer, a desire, that it is difficult for us to adopt as our own, I suspect, for in our lives we wish for the increase of many things:
O Lord, increase my salary!
Increase my investment returns.
Increase the interest on my savings account. While you are at it, increase the savings therein!
Increase the value of my real estate.
Increase the time I get to spend with my children.
Increase the number of my vacation days.
Increase the number of my days on this earth, or the number of days I will have with the ones I love.
O Lord, increase my health, or my happiness, or Lord, at least increase my hair!
O Lord, increase the peace in this mad and warring world!
O Lord, increase the number of voters who agree with me!
Increase the people who come to church.
Increase the chances that the orchestra will be back on stage again soon!
Increase the education of our children, and the welfare of our nation.
Increase our security and our safety.
Increase the rain, O Lord, except when it rains too much, then increase the sunshine.
Increase the life of my cell phone battery, and the strength of my cellular signal.
O Lord, increase my memory as it starts to fail, and my strength, and my balance, and my independence as I grow older.
Increase the civility of public discourse, and the justice we seek in this land.
Increase equality between men and women, and among people of all colors and creeds
Increase the bees, who are struggling so.
Increase the flowers. O Lord, and the rainbows, and the days I get to spend at the beach.
Increase, O Lord, increase!
We have so much that we can easily ask God to increase. But to increase our faith? This is a difficult prayer. What would it mean to increase our faith?
I suspect that many of us imagine that if our faith was increased we’d be better at doing things like praying the Daily Office with great devotion, discipline, and regularity; marking our days with the prayers of the church, and coloring our lives with a piety that we imagine others, holier than we are, are possessed of.
But I wonder if perhaps, there is an answer to that hope (O Lord, increase our faith!) that is actually much simpler. Maybe it’s a question of finding the one thing we need to carry, amid all the other things we’d do better off to let go of, leave behind, and give up.
If life is a pilgrimage – a journey with God, to God – then you want to be careful about how you pack your rucksack, because the things you carry matter. And amid all the other things we want to carry, it is so easy to leave Jesus behind, on the far shore, considering that he is just too heavy and inconvenient to bring with us, and after all, what difference does he make?
I cannot say for sure, what difference it made to carry that little red book with me from the south of Spain all the way to the north for a span of forty-two days. But I can say without a doubt that I am glad I carried it, because it seems to have been a way that God increased my faith – helping me to find not only the strength, but the will, and the desire to carry something, that I had first thought I’d rather not have with me at all.
I have reflected for a while with a photo of one of those very large murals of St. Christopher – the one in Zamora Cathedral. And I notice that he has big calves, just like I do. And it’s hard to tell, but I think he has athletic tape around one of his toes, as I often did when walking in Spain. And he is carrying a wooden staff that he has just picked up in the woods somewhere, as I did. But he has no backpack strapped to his shoulders and his waist. He has only the Lord Jesus, resting on his shoulder, demanding his attention, and giving him (and the whole world around them) his blessing.
And I think how glad I am that I carried that red book with me. And it makes me want to pray, O Lord, increase my faith!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 October 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] fr. Lives of the Saints, John J. Crawley & Co.