Weekend Poem: For the Traveler by John O’Donohue

It’s that time of year when, in most of the Western Hemisphere, given the lovely weather, people get itchy feet and go on a trip or two — whether by road, rail, air.

It’s a funny thing about traveling away from home: whether it is for work or leisure, our preferences for the kinds of places we enjoy exploring and what we get out of the journey varies widely for a myriad reasons. One thing, though, that every traveler has in common is that the best kind of trip is the one that alters us somehow when we return home so that we look at that home again with new eyes. Often, this alteration is because we bring back parts of the places we’ve been to. Sometimes, the alteration is because we leave parts of ourselves, metaphorically speaking, in the places we’ve visited. Even for those of us who might travel for travel’s sake, there is some change in the harmony between ourselves and the universe after a particular journey.

That said, there is a difference, of course, between travel and tourism. The historian, Daniel J Boorstin, famously said:

The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sight-seeing”.

The best kind of travel allows, at the same time, a deeper journey within. It is less a means of distraction or entertainment and more a matter of personal fulfillment and change, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc. As such, no two journeys can ever be the same, even if taken by the same person.

These days, perhaps, the above ideas about travel might seem a bit old-fashioned. We undertake trips far more casually today than even a decade ago. We are able to stay connected 24/7 with folks back home so that it doesn’t quite feel like we’re away from everything that is familiar to us. Innovative corporations provide us with products, services and home comforts in most places we visit and make them feel more like home than away-from-home. We can even sit back and enjoy armchair travel through virtual experiences of other places, cultures and people.

Yet, there was a time, not so long ago, when travel that required several hours or more to get to a place was a major life decision and only undertaken by the intrepid or out of the utmost necessity. Then, there were many rituals to go through with the loved ones being left behind, not knowing when we might see them again, if at all. In those times, a person’s education was not complete unless he or she had traveled wide across the world and gained a broader worldview.

Our weekend poem is an old-fashioned blessing for present times. It is an exhortation to consider and approach travel and journey-taking as the life-changing experience it can still be today. And, finally, it is a reminder of that well-known truism that our travel destination is never a particular place but a particular new way of seeing the world.

John O’Donohue, the poet, was an Irish scholar, priest, philosopher, writer and poet. Born in 1956, he died rather suddenly in 2008. Travel was important to him as this poem shows. In a book of blessings, ‘Anam Cara‘, he wrote to solo travelers:

When you cease to fear your solitude, a new creativity awakens in you. Your forgotten or neglected wealth begins to reveal itself. You come home to yourself and learn to rest within. Thoughts are our inner senses. Infused with silence and solitude, they bring out the mystery of inner landscape.

This particular poem is from another book of blessings called, ‘To Bless the Space Between Us‘. It is written in a simple, everyday language, even devoid of most of the relatively more elaborate metaphor and imagery that feature in our typical weekend poem selections. Yet, it is so powerful in its ability to arrest our attention and reach inside, don’t you think? Even though we don’t know the poet personally, there is just something about this poem that makes it feel like an intimate communion between the poet and us, the readers. For me, whenever I read it, there is an immediate sense of being enveloped in warm kindness by a loved one who cares deeply about our entire well-being.

I’ll leave off any further analysis or appreciation other than to suggest that, if you’re fond of travel yourself or are planning an upcoming trip, you might consider taking this poem along with you to meditate on at various times during your journey. It will certainly help you be that much more profoundly sensitive to your new surroundings, people and experiences. And, if you know someone about to take a new, important journey, you might also consider sending this poem on to them as your blessing to or well wishes for them. Safe travels!

For the Traveler

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

 ~ John O’Donohue, ‘To Bless the Space Between Us

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3 thoughts on “Weekend Poem: For the Traveler by John O’Donohue

  1. Jennifer,

    I love To Bless the Space Between Us. I had not read this particular poem for quite some time and I had just returned from a trip. So many of the lines spoke to me. Thanks for posting.

    Carol Tyx

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed it too, Carol. I need to revisit ‘To Bless the Space Between Us’ as it’s been quite some time for me too.

      Like

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