Who are the members of your motley crew?

In the Library of Congress, a mural by Ezra Winter illustrates the characters in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. [Pictured is a small section.] (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Carol M. Highsmith)
In the Library of Congress, a mural by Ezra Winter illustrates the characters in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. [Pictured is a small section.] (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Carol M. Highsmith)

by Robert Morneau

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales reminds us of our identity as pilgrims. We are all on a journey. And a motley crew we are: saints and sinners, clowns and CEOs, the beautiful and the ugly. We do well to remember William James' assertion: "The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down."

Who are some of the confidantes in your motley crew, the companions on your particular pilgrimage? Who are the ones offering guidance as you journey toward Canterbury or Camelot or God's kingdom, and what wisdom do they share? Answering these questions might bring forth gratitude, perhaps even reform.

I have been on the road now for 75 years. Time and time again, I am joined for a mile or two by a politician, a poet, a prophet, a philosopher, a psalmist. Time and time again, I've dialogued about the big and little questions of life.

Recently I "traveled" with Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-61), that great international civil servant who served as secretary-general of the United Nations for eight years. Here is what he had to say (via Roger Lipsey's Hammarskjöld: A Life): "Each day the first day. Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back."

Ancient wisdom here, the old carpe diem advice. By seizing the day and making the most of each moment, we learn the art of living. It is a call to attentiveness; it is a call to live in the moment, yes, the sacrament of the moment. Hammarskjöld gave primacy to the present moment while simultaneously saying a resounding yes to the past and the future.

As Hammarskjöld moved on, I was joined by Emily Dickinson (1830-86). She was still singing her songs, a number of them beyond my musical understanding. But when I heard "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" I immediately recognized the melody. It was that old song of self-devaluation. Although Dickinson probably wrote the verse with tongue in cheek, we know that considering oneself a nobody is a lie. Everyone has dignity, and although we need not go Muhammad Ali's route -- "I am the greatest!" -- we should say, "I am somebody, someone of great worth!"

Dickinson hustled back to her solitude and alongside me appeared none other than Ezekiel, the prophet. He had a message from God and whispered it in my ear: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; from your body I will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). When I heard this, I realized that my need was not for a stent or bypass surgery. No, God was promising a brand new heart by which to love and show compassion.

In our troupe were several philosophers, Socrates, Kant, Husserl just to name a few. But it was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) who shared this prayer with us pilgrims: "So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing." Long into the night, we discover that one thing, that unum necessarium, and we all agreed it is the ability to receive and give love.

King David came up from the rear, singing his psalms. One of his favorites (and ours) was the one we know as Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd ..." David told us the whole story: his anointing, his murder, his adultery, his guilt. Then he told us the rest of the story: God's overwhelming mercy and love. We all slept well that evening.

In between the conversations and meals, we had some down time, some silence and solitude. It was in these moments that we processed our experience, knowing full well that experiences unreflected upon can be so dehumanizing.

At last, just over the horizon we saw our destination. Through the mist we saw something that looked like a cross and over to the left an empty tomb. We hurried on.

[Bishop Robert Morneau served as an auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Green Bay, Wis., from 1978 to his retirement in 2013. He is the author of many books, including The Color of Gratitude, and continues his journey as one of the world's greatest Green Bay Packer fans.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 4-17, 2014 print issue under the headline: Who are the members of your motley crew?.

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