I can’t remember when or where I first heard this story, but I’ve heard it several times since. Here’s my version:
Once upon a time, there was a very poor shoemaker who lived in the city of Prague. Night after night, he dreamed that he should journey to Vienna, where, at the base of a great oak tree, he would find buried treasure. Finally, he left his family and after a long, arduous journey to Vienna, he found the tree.
As he started digging, a soldier demanded to know what the poor man was doing. When the man told the soldier about his dream, the soldier broke into laughter. “You idiot!” he said. “Why if I let myself be guided by dreams, I’d be headed for Prague, because I’ve been dreaming of a treasure chest buried in the cellar of some poor shoemaker there.”
The shoemaker hurried home. He dug in his cellar and yes, he found a chest filled with gold.
Later, as he reflected on his new wealth, he thought, “The treasure was always in my possession, but I had to travel to Vienna to find it.”
When I first moved to Mount Desert Island, considered by many one of the most beautiful places in the world, I was telling a long-time resident about the beautiful sunrise I’d seen over the ocean and the islands. “Oh, we get those all the time,” she said. “I don’t even notice them anymore.” I couldn’t understand how she could be so blind, and yet I admit now that it’s only after being on a pilgrimage or making a retreat that I become aware of some of the treasures I’ve had have in my possession but have never seen.
I remember falling in love with the clouds hovering over the water surrounding the Scottish island of Iona, and then returning to Maine and realizing that I could see those same puffy white clouds over Casco Bay. Walking through golden bracken along St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Scotland to the island of Lindisfarne in England and then going back to Brunswick and seeing for the first time the bracken in woods behind my house. Spending thirty minutes or more at breakfast watching house finches and cardinals at the feeders outside the Desert House of Prayer in Arizona, and then realizing after I got back to Maine that I could put up a feeder and watch house finches and cardinals from my own breakfast table.
I don’t know why we have to go away in order to find the treasures that we already possess, but writers on pilgrimage all say that renewed awareness is one of the things a pilgrimage is for. And T.S. Eliot writes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
So, while I wish I could discover my treasures by sitting with my feet up in front of a fire on a winter evening, I guess I can’t.
“In prayer we discover what we already have,” wrote Thomas Merton, one of my cherished teachers. A year and a half after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I was introduced to Contemplative Prayer, a form of Christian meditation. The first time I tried it, I felt like a fool for sitting in a dimly lit church that must have been about the same temperature as a barn, trying to avoid what I’d spent over twenty-five years teaching kids to do: think. I heard my father muttering in my ear, “What kind of goddamned foolishness is this?” My old basketball teammates sneered at me for contemplating my navel. This isn’t me, I thought.
But then I thought of Saturdays at the First Congregational Church when I was a kid helping my father, who moonlighted as the church sexton, and the enjoyment of being alone in the empty sanctuary. I thought about all those solitary hours I played basketball in the back yard, and my sense of transcendence as the ball left my hand and rose into the air—as if I were the one soaring and leaving the secular world behind. I recalled when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service: the hours I sat on a rock in the middle of a burned-out forest, silently beholding the Grand Tetons. All the cathedrals I’d visited in England the previous summer—sitting on wooden pews surrounded by elaborately carved stones, never thinking about theology or God, most of the time just sitting, cradled by silence. I thought about the chapel at Eastern Maine Medical Center where I used to go after I’d been by Laurie’s bedside.
Maybe, I thought, I’ve been meditating all my life.
The silence and slow time of a pilgrimage, retreat, or sitting in contemplative prayer all help me become more aware of what I see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste. Focusing on my senses keeps me in the present moment and not in the past or in the future, where my mind so often wants to take me. Every spiritual tradition I know of says in one way or another that God is found not in past memories or some future “heaven,” but in the treasure that is the present moment.
“Wasting time conscientiously,” as the Buddhist Suzuki Roshi says—using my senses, focusing on the present moment—helps me experience what mystics have been saying for centuries and that modern science seems to be confirming: that all of life is connected in a fundamental way. As philosopher Brian Swimme and historian Mary Evelyn Tucker write,
“… our universe is a single immense energy event that began as a tiny speck that has unfolded over time to become galaxies and stars, palms and pelicans, the music of Bach, and each of us alive today.”
I have trouble with anthropomorphic descriptions of God—words that depict God as having human characteristics, even desirable characteristics such as love and compassion. Perhaps because I’ve lost a child to a rare, freaky cancer that had nothing to do with her having any bad habits, as did all the smokers who died in my family from the disease, I bristle when someone calls God “all-loving.” But when I can get out of my head and experience through my senses that everything connects, I sense a power that seems to hold even the universe, even death, in a kind of heavenly enfolding.
Time, silence, my senses, the present moment, my experiences with the unity of the universe (which, by the way, literally means “turned into one”): all treasures I’ve had to go to Vienna to discover I already possess. I’m guessing we all have treasures buried in our cellars. My problem is that I find these treasures and then bury them again (or, as is more likely these days, forget where I put them). Which means I have to keep going back to Vienna, keep going on pilgrimages and making retreats, to find once more what I’ve always had.