On Setting Out and Coming Home

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

Matsuo Basho, the late 17th century Japanese poet, master of haibun,[1] speaks of a strong desire to wander, as if it’s the essence of who he is. In the opening lines of his travel sketch, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he says: “the gods seemed to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.”[2] Throughout all his travel sketches he seems always to be setting out on a journey, leaving home, leaving friends. We might call him, in those haunting words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, “a lover of leaving.”[3] At the conclusion of The Narrow Road he speaks of a wonderful reunion with friends. “Everybody was overjoyed to see me as if I had returned unexpectedly from the dead.” But his homecoming is short-lived. Though filled with the fatigue of journeying, he sets out again, and offers this final poem: As firmly cemented clam-shells / Fall apart in autumn, / So I must take to the road again, / Farewell my friends.[4]

In contrast to Basho’s relentless journeying, I offer (UUS:E member) David Garnes’ story of his 81-year old grandmother Sarah Rose Tyre Gordon Munro Macaulay Garnes’ return to her beloved Scotland at age 81 after 57 years of absence.[5] (I’ll call her Sarah from here on.) Her homecoming, like Basho’s reunion with friends, is joyous. It’s also a dramatic and heart-warming story—going back to the place of her birth, seeing long-lost family members after more than half a century. But where Basho is always setting out, Sarah’s journey is one of returning, coming home. And it’s more than that. In telling us about Sarah’s homecoming David also reminds us of her setting out from Scotland in 1911 to make a new home in America. And despite many hardships, including the untimely deaths of her husband, her son and a grandchild; raising her children alone; working at two jobs to avoid welfare, she succeeded. She built a home and a loving family. And David says “she was probably the happiest person I’ve ever known.”[6] Where Basho’s spiritual instinct was to set out, Sarah’s was to come home.

The question I’d like you to consider this morning and in the coming weeks is this: when you contemplate your own spiritual journey, are you setting out or coming home?

Our November ministry theme is journeys, so I want to explore this notion that we take spiritual journeys. Unitarian Universalists often say things like, “our lives are spiritual journeys,” but we don’t always explain what this means. This makes sense when we pause to consider that one of the purposes of any religion is to help its practitioners move along the path of their spiritual journey. Where some religions offer specific paths toward specific goals—which makes the journey relatively easy to explain—others, like Unitarian Universalism, are more open-ended, the directions less specified, the paths more numerous, and spontaneity, creativity and curiosity more valued than the discipline of sticking to pre-ordained rules. This open-endedness makes the typical Unitarian Universalist spiritual journey more difficult to explain. In fact, it makes the word typical more or less useless. But even so, I think it’s important that we have ways of articulating what we mean when we say, “Our lives are spiritual journeys.”

For me, spirituality is fundamentally about connection. An effective spiritual practice connects us to some reality larger than ourselves: to family, humanity, nature, the land, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors. When I speak of our spiritual lives, I’m speaking of all the ways we connect to whatever is of utmost worth to us, whatever we hold sacred, whatever we regard as holy. When I speak of our spiritual journeys, I’m referring not so much to the full span of our lives, but to certain discrete portions of our lives, such as the journey of our young adult years, the journey of parenting, the journey of career, the journey into elderhood; or, I’m speaking of our journey through certain ordeals or challenges, such as losing a job, the break-up of a marriage, the death of a loved-one; or I’m speaking about our journey through certain joyous milestones or blessings such as the birth of a child or, many years later, welcoming that same child into adulthood.

What makes any of these journeys spiritual is that they enable us to deepen our sense of connection over time. We don’t necessarily recognize it when it’s happening, but at various points along the way, when we have a moment to pause and reflect on our lives, we might notice that we’ve completed some significant journey, or that we’ve come through some uniquely challenging experience, and we might realize that we’re not the same person we were when we started; that we possess some knowledge about life and living we didn’t possess when we started; that we are wiser than when we began; that we feel more whole, more at ease in the world, more comfortable in our own skin. Perhaps, at the end of our journey, we realize we are better able to give and receive love; perhaps we are more compassionate in our treatment of others; perhaps we’ve discovered our gifts and we are finally using them in the service of others; perhaps we’ve come to terms with a painful loss; perhaps we are more at peace with the reality of our own death. All of this suggests to me that through the course of our journeying we have deepened our connections to those things we hold sacred, those things that matter most: family, humanity, nature, the land, the earth, life, the planet, the cosmos, spirit, divinity, the gods and goddesses, the ancestors, and on and on and on.

But we don’t always realize we’re embarking on a spiritual journey. More often than not our journeys begin with a twinge, a gnawing at the back of our minds or the edge of our hearts, a discomfort or dissonance, a low-level anxiety, a frustration, a sense that something in our life is out of alignment, a sense that something is lacking, or a longing we’re slowly beginning to recognize but aren’t quite sure how to fulfill. We may feel this way because some new situation has arisen—a baby has come, a job has been lost, an aging parent has moved in—and we more or less know our life needs to change; or it may just be a twinge with no apparent source.

That twinge, that gnawing, that longing—if it’s real—doesn’t go away. It begins to take on the quality of voice. That is, it speaks to us, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes with a roar, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. It questions and cajoles, it makes gentle pleas and strident demands. The word calling is appropriate here. This voice, however we experience it, calls us to pursue some different, perhaps more noble purpose; calls us to pursue some deeply felt passion; calls us to live better in some way, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to meet whatever challenge confronts us. We might hear it in the voice of a spouse or a good friend, a boss or a co-worker. We might hear it in the voice of our minister! Or the voice of our doctor, or maybe in the voice of a total stranger. We might hear it as our inner voice—that still, small voice; that voice of our most authentic self that knows what we really want for our lives, even before our waking minds know. We might hear it as a voice from without—a holy voice, a sacred voice, a divine voice, a spirit voice. We might hear it in our dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating. When we finally respond to the voice, when we finally start to move, I find we tend to move in one of two directions. Either we’re setting out, or we’re coming home.

We set out when we feel stuck where we are, when we need something new, some connection we’ve never had, some knowledge we cannot acquire by staying home. We set out when we feel constrained and need freedom, when we find it hard to breathe and we need the fresh air of the open road. The work of setting out includes experimenting, exploring, creating, searching. Setting out requires courage, curiosity, strength, nerve, an adventurous spirit, a willingness to take risks, even arrogance at times. Basho’s travel sketches are a wonderful example of setting out. For him, home is a place of idleness. He goes stir-crazy. On the road he is alive and passionate. On the road he expects to catch glimpses of eternity and let it inspire his poetry.[7]

I find a similar spiritual mentality in the 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote the words: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. / Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, / Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, / Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, / Strong and content I travel the open road.[8]” Again, a yearning for freedom, a confident, adventurous spirit, a willingness to cut ties, a desire to explore. This is setting out.

We come home when we’re longing for foundations, for roots, for love, intimacy, care and nurture. We come home when we’re yearning for community, for familiar faces and places, familiar food, smell, touch, land, seasons. The work of coming home includes listening, sharing, sacrificing, forgiving and building community. Coming home requires its own kinds of courage and strength; its own kinds of persistence and endurance. It requires vulnerability, humility, and a willingness to set one’s own needs aside at times to meet the needs of others. David Garnes’ story about Sarah is a testament to her spiritual journey of coming home. We can hear it in the fond memories of a loving grandmother.  He writes, “sometimes the most memorable characters in your life aren’t the famous people you meet at a party, or the speaker whose lecture inspires…. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s the person who read to you night after night as a kid, who slipped you a nickel for an ice cream cone, and who was always there for you, arms wide open, no matter what.”[9]

If you ask me about my spiritual journey, these days I lean towards coming home. Don’t get me wrong: I value setting out. It’s been very important in shaping my sense of who I am and what I value. But my instinct is that home is becoming more and more elusive in our era. I won’t rehearse the litany of ills that beset families or the social and economic conditions that make it increasingly difficult to build and sustain vital neighborhoods and communities. Suffice to say, I experience many forces in the larger world that drive wedges between people who ought to be in community together, who ought to be encountering each other with loving, compassionate hearts, who ought to be working together for the common good, who ought to see beyond the narrow tunnel of their own self-interest. This is the source of my tinge, my gnawing, my low-level anxiety, my longing. The voices I hear in my dreams, in prayer, in meditation, in the shower, while exercising, stretching, singing, dancing, creating all urge me to come more fully home.


Last night as I was putting what I thought were the finishing touches on this sermon, I found a poem by a colleague named Rick Hoyt who serves the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. His poem is called “Beyond Borders” and it reminds me that we set out and come home many times through the course of our lives; and that setting out and coming home are both critical parts of the same process. Rev. Hoyt says: “Go forth / Because we are always going forth from somewhere / Going from our homes, our childhoods / Going from our cities and countries / Going from innocence to experience to enlightenment / Going into mystery and questions / Going into desert / Getting to the other side. / Go forth, / Leave behind the comfort and community of one place / Head into the anxiety and loneliness of another. / Carry with you the love and laughter of this place / And let it light your way / Carry with you the wisdom you learned and the good memories / May they give you strength for your journey/ And when you have been away long enough, far enough / Done what you’d set off to do / Been there so long / That place too, starts to feel like home / Come back /Come back to the one, universal / Everywhere and every when and everyone inclusive home, / This beloved community of all creation/ That you can never really leave.[10]

Amen and blessed be.


[1] For a basic definition of haibun see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haibun.

[2] Matsuo Bash?, in Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.97.

[3] Rumi, Jelaluddin, “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #188.

[4] Ibid., p. 142.

[5] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 139-145.

[6] Ibid., p. 144.

[7] Nobuyuki Yuasa, tr., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (London: Penguin Books, 1966) p.37.

[8] See the full text to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178711

[9] Garnes, David, “Time Travel 1968” in From My Life: Travels and Adventures (Manchester, CT: self-published, 2010) pp. 144.

[10] Hoyt, Rick, “Beyond Borders” inJanamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 17-18.