Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bucket List

- At the Desert Retreat House -

There was a story in yesterday’s paper about some folks on their way to a long-awaited and long-planned family vacation in Las Vegas. As they were traveling to their destination, an unexpected wildfire swept across the Interstate Highway and they had to abandon their car that had caught on fire - they never made it to Las Vegas. In the news article yesterday, the mom tearfully lamented, “We have been planning this vacation for two years now. We couldn’t stop talking about it, I thought about it every day -  and now it’s over even before it began.”

That news story reminded me of an ad I saw recently from a local travel agency inviting people to plan their summer vacations so they can check off some of those places on their “bucket list.” It seems as if “bucket lists” are pretty popular nowadays, especially in areas where a lot of older folks live - lists of those places you want to visit or things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.” I guess it’s ok to have a “bucket list,” the problem is that like the family who never made it to Las Vegas, you can spend an awful lot of time and energy thinking about that vacation that will never actually happen.

I think today’s “bucket list phenomenon” is probably very emblematic of the kind of  spiritual dead-end so many people encounter when they live for the days to come, and in doing so often miss the days that are here.

I am reminded of a little “saying” that comes out of the literature of the ancient Christian Desert Monks - a piece of wisdom a mentor shares with one of his young charges who is constantly making “big plans” for what to do in the days ahead:

The old Abba told a younger monk,
‘You’ve not yet found a ship to sail in,
nor put your luggage aboard, nor put out to sea,
and yet you are already acting as if you were in the city you mean to reach.’

I think the old Abba’s words of wisdom might easily be shared with a lot of people in our own times – so many of us live in a future that hasn’t yet happened and may never even come to be.

The renowned author, Thomas Merton, spent his entire life writing about the spiritual life, and the older he got the less he found value in preparing any sort of “bucket list” of things he yet wanted to do or places he wanted to see before he died. He wrote:

The one thing that has grown most noticeably in my spiritual life
is the grip the ‘present’ has on me.
As I am getting older I am more and more aware of
the reality of now- the unreality of all the rest.

Merton also said:

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

Maybe that’s what all this “bucket list” stuff is ultimately all about- maybe it is all about living a life driven by “ambition?” So many of us are driven to making those endless plans we feel we need to make to assure our legacy or to get to the top of the ladder before time runs out. The only reality is now, everything else is unreality and when ambition ends, happiness begins.

I guess I have a “bucket list” of sorts – to be honest I don’t take it all that seriously. After all, my car could catch on fire and the vacation I had planned would be over before it even begins.

So I’ll just sit in my garden, watch a hummingbird and give my wife a kiss.


  1. Well Paul I agree with you. Solomon agrees with you too. Ecclesiastes 9: 9, 10
    9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. NIV

  2. Agree, but, thinking about myself, there is sometimes a fine line between doing something which requires some planning and "laziness" which needs to be overcome. This, I might add, includes setting a time for meditation and/or attending worship services at my church.

    1. Yes, good point but I also think there is a difference between living in and for the future and planning the use of time.

  3. Great reflection, Paul. This reminds me so much of my wife who plans vacations at least a year in advance and then proceeds to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking AND SPEAKING about it throughout the year. It makes me very sad and inadequate to think that this is the only thing she has to look forward to in her life.
    In addition to this, she is a movie addict. I've indulged this obsessive habit almost every weekend for 20 years. It seems to be an escape mechanism that developed in her childhood. I guess my point is that some people just can't seem to be Present in the Moment(and never will) for various psychological reasons.

    On a humorous note: I recently read something humorous that an Abbott supposedly said of the companionable and sociable Merton (and I must paraphrase here) " Thomas Merton would only be happy in a Hermitage if it is located in Central Park and has a flashing neon sign reading "HERMITAGE" :)


    1. Love that last comment--do you know where you read it?

  4. Sorry for the misquote, here's the exact quote: " There’s a bit of a paradox in all of this, isn’t there? One of the famous criticisms of Merton, in fact, was that he wanted to be a hermit just so long as his hermitage was in Times Square with a neon sign above it announcing “Hermit lives here!”

  5. Thanks Paul. So true. Although I do find that having some anticipation for future moments is something to be savoured in the present moment. Whether it is a piece of home made cake with a cuppa later, or seeing the blackberries come into blossom and looking forward to picking the black ripe fruit, or the first daffodils in spring as a welcoming sign of warmer weather. I guess it is about holding these things lightly, and if the piece of cake has been eaten by someone else then so be it. Sheridan xx

    1. Wow..such a beautiful comment...thank you!