A Prayer for the Journey

Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Liverpool, a few short days ahead of the students who will join me for the Semester in Britain.

In an old Russian custom, a traveler who is about to move house or set out on a long journey will—just before departure—sit down for a moment of silent thought and prayer. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the impulsive rake Anatole Kuragin is about to hop in the sleigh to abduct and elope with Natasha Rostova, and he has just ordered the driver to whip the horses to death if he has to. The driver leaps toward the door. “Wait!” says Anatole. “We have to sit down first!” Which he does.

I’ve always admired that tradition in principle, although I’ve never achieved it in practice. I’m always too busy checking last minute details—which is of course, the kind of frenzied activity that the Russian habit is designed to counteract.

The last time I moved to England for a semester, just as I was hauling my suitcase toward the back door, I had the impulse to go over to the armchair in our living room, not to sit down (as I should have) but rather to pet the large black cat huddled on the back of it. Dear Miles was a gentle old soul who had been with my wife and me for sixteen years—before we had our son, before we had our jobs, before we had our PhDs. If you had asked me to define what made our house a home, Miles sould have topped the list as surely as he topped the armchair.

I was right to say goodbye to Miles: when I returned from England four months later, Miles was dead and buried in the backyard. Long trips from home can change you, for better and for worse, but the home to which you return will also have changed when you return to it. It is well worth a pause before departure.

(Our other cat, Natalie, would die about two months after my return. The current pets have been put on high alert.)

The one ritual I do have is a short prayer that I often say before long journeys, whether they be transatlantic flights, road trips, distance runs, or marathons:

   Bless my leaving;
   Guide my going;
   Welcome me at last.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."