The Word Encountered
The Burden of Baggage
Take nothing on the journey. (Mark 6:8)
When I went to India a long time ago, I lugged along a load of books that I wanted to read during the sojourn. It almost broke my back, hauling that stuff around. And yet, at least at first, how I treasured my books. I carefully underlined and highlighted the passages that would come in handy someday.
But the books weighed on me. Not only were they hard to carry, they were heavy on my time. When I heard of a Jesuit who had converted thousands of men and women, animists from Bihar, I started to give away my precious burdens. The wiry missionary, in response to the question of how he had touched so many people, simply said: “I travel light, so I have time. Any distance shorter than twenty miles, I walk, so I have time.”
As my pack of wonderful books shrank, my back got better. And I had more time to live.
I must not have learned my lesson very well. I remember laughing at myself more recently, as I prepared to spend a year in Africa. My packing was meticulous: the right shoes, plenty of underwear, aspirin and antibiotics, a short-wave radio to get the BBC, more books (but fewer than I took to India), and a mosquito net.
Quite a different scenario from the one presented in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two, with nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no traveling bag, not a coin in their purses. Sandals were proper, but no second tunic.
I realize, of course, that we are in a different time. And it is appropriate to take things on our journey to help us in our efforts of healing, blessing, anointing, and preaching. But it is an uneasy accommodation. More often than not, the excess baggage hinders rather than helps.
We Christians—bishops, priests, and people—in our manifold ways are all called to be disciples, often as healers and teachers, sometimes as reluctant prophets like Amos. But I wonder if we carry too much baggage.
It’s not merely the things we stuff in our luggage or carry along with our entourage. It may be all the excess trappings of our power, privilege, and money. It may be crusty ideology and pet theories. As an old woman from North Saint Louis used to say: “I’d rather see a sermon lived than talked.”
A Christian, whether pope or peasant, is most effective in discipleship when least ambivalent in motive. It is so easy to skim the benefits off the top. It is so tempting to serve the good news of our own egos and prominence, rather than yield to the harrowing truths we preach.
If we profess that “it is in Christ and through his blood that we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven,” then perhaps our lives could be lived a little more simply, a little less ambiguously. It might be more evident to others and ourselves that it is indeed Christ we are made for, not the trappings we carry.
With too much baggage, it is our baggage we serve, our own nests we feather. Could this be why some of our apostolic efforts in the world today seem ineffective? Could it be that we are more skilled at collecting our benefits than shepherding the faith?
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University