In the late 1980s I had the privilege of attending a three day seminar put on by the Catholic Church called Cursillo in the diocese of New Hampshire. The course is also known as a short course in Christianity. The original course was developed in Majorca, Spain, during World War II when it was not possible for youth to travel on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
I was so fascinated by the power of the course that I took several more courses on the history and structure of Cursillo.
A few years later I came across Paulo Coelho‘s book The Pilgrimmage. The book was a story of Coelho’s journey to “find his sword” after he was denied that sword at the last minute in his spiritual mastery course. I was delighted to have a first person account of the actual journey to Santiago. However, I was not prepared for the ending of the book where the secret of the sword was revealed:
“I told myself, trying to convince myself that the Road to Santiago was what was important to me. The sword was only an outcome. I would like to find it, but I would like even more to know what to do with it. Because I would have to use it in some practical way, just as I used the exercises Petrus had taught me.
“I stopped short. The thought that up until then had been only nascent exploded into clarity. Everything became clear, and a tide of agape washed over me. I wished with all my heart that Petrus were there so that I could tell him what he had been waiting to hear from me. It was the only thing that he had really wanted me to understand, the crowning accomplishment of all the hours he had devoted to teaching me as we walked the Strange Road to Santiago: it was the secret of my sword!
“And the secret of my sword, like the secret of any conquest we make in our lives, was the simplest thing in the world: it was what I should do with this sword.
“I had never thought in these terms. Throughout our time on the Strange Road to Santiago, the only thing I had wanted to know was where it was hidden. I had never asked myself why I wanted to find it or what I needed it for. All of my efforts had been bent on reward; I had not understood that when we want something, we have to have a clear purpose in mind for the thing that we want. The only reason for seeking a reward is to know what to do with that reward. And this was the secret of my sword.
“Petrus was right again: by teaching myself, I had transformed myself into a master.
“There I stood, overcome by the scene of the lamb and the cross. This was a cross that I need not set upright, for it was there before me, solitary and immense, resisting time and the elements. It was a symbol of the fate that people created, not for their God but for themselves. The lessons of the Road to Santiago came back to me as I sobbed there, with a frightened lamb as my witness.
“My Lord,” I said, finally able to pray, “I am not nailed to this cross, nor do I see you there. The cross is empty, and that is how it should stay forever; the time of death is already past, and a god is now reborn within me. The cross is the symbol of the infinite power that each of us has. Now this power is reborn, the world is saved, and I am able to perform your miracles, because I trod the Road of the common people and, in mingling with them, found your secret. You came among us to teach us all that we were capable of becoming, and we did not want to accept this. You showed us that the power and the glory were within every person’s reach, and this sudden vision of our capacity was too much for us. We crucified you, not because we were ungrateful to the Son of God but because we were fearful of accepting our own capacity. We crucified you fearing that we might be transformed into gods. With time and tradition, you came to be just a distant divinity, and we returned to our destiny as human beings.
“It is not a sin to be happy. Half a dozen exercises and an attentive ear are enough to allow us to realize our most impossible dreams. Because of my pride in wisdom, you made me walk the Road that every person can walk, and discover what everyone else already knows if they have paid the slightest attention to life. You made me see that the search for happiness is a personal search and not a model we can pass on to others. Before finding my sword, I had to discover its secret – and the secret was so simple; it was to know what to do with it. With it and with the happiness that it would represent to me.
“I have walked so many miles to discover things I already knew, things that all of us know but that are so hard to accept. Is there anything harder for us, my Lord, than discovering that we can achieve the power? This pain that I feel now in my breast, that makes me sob and that frightens that poor lamb, has been felt since human beings first existed. Few can accept the burden of their own victory: most give up their dreams when they see that they can be realized. They refuse to fight the good fight because they do not know what to do with their own happiness; they are imprisoned by the things of the world. Just as I have been, who wanted to find my sword without knowing what to do with it.”
For many years, I worked diligently to figure out “what to do with my sword.” Yet, I was never comfortable or fully committed to the paths forward that I came up with. Every so often I would go back and re-read The Pilgrimage to see if I could figure out what Coelho had decided to do with his sword. Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything in the text that let me know what Coelho decided.
Then I realized that I didn’t even know what my sword was. There wasn’t one core question in the book, but rather two:
- What is my sword?
- What do I do with my sword?
I decided to use a different process from personal reflection to get at these two questions – I would seek wisdom and guidance from those colleagues, family and friends who knew me best. I sent out the following email:
Dear treasured colleague,
I recently re-read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage for the third time. The book is about a journey that Paulo took in Spain to the shrine of San Tiago.
The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom by Paulo Coelho
From the first reading, I have endeavored to come to the insights of Coelho that life is not about acquiring a sword, but about figuring out what to do with the sword. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer the same question – what am I going to do with my sword?
Yet on this re-reading I had to laugh at myself as I realized I had not ever asked the question, what is my sword? No wonder I couldn’t answer the second question.
As someone who I trust and value and who has known me for a long time, I would appreciate some help in your point of view on “what is my metaphorical sword?” What do you think is my best skill? What is my special gift in this world? What is it that I’m really good at?
Thanks ahead of time for your insights.
I was stunned by the seriousness and depth that my treasured colleagues returned.
From my oldest daughter Elizabeth came this prized response:
“Ok, so I have been thinking about this for a few days and here is what I have come up with…
“(It is quite possible that my perspective has been shaped by your note about how “A vine is a machine for transforming terroir into stories” and by the “Digital wizard” story and I am a shameless copycat. But perhaps there is something useful in what follows nonetheless.)
“You have many talents. From my perspective, the keystone in all of these is that you identify (and create) stories and communicate them to relevant individuals far earlier in the unfolding “tale” than anyone else is able to. And this lets you shape the story more than most others. I would wager that what allows you to do this is your ability to be open + curious to new people and ideas (ie: true enjoyment of “networking” in the deeper sense), and your tendency to be humble + interested enough with the people who matter that they want to teach you about new fields (ie: you don’t seem to pigeon-hole yourself into one domain). And you “get” how business works, so you are able to write some of these stories in the marketplace. You also have passion — you care about the underlying story — which gets you very excited at times, but also very upset when someone else comes in and starts editing with a giant black marker.
“To be totally low-brow: What you do best can be likened to reading a Clive Cussler book. You know how these books start off with 4 seemingly unrelated chapters occurring many years apart? Some of us need the connections spelled out in the later chapters, while other readers can predict the connections right away. It seems to me that you are in the latter category, in terms of reading real life events. You are able to grasp unrelated interactions and see the story weaving through many disparate events about 10 years (+/- 5 years) earlier than anyone else in related fields is able to. You see the arc of the storyline before most of us have even identified the main players. And you appear to have a good memory for remembering key players in earlier chapters, to bring them back into the story when the time is right.
“You have said yourself a number of times that you have had to figure out how to “lead” people to see the story line in your head by “planting seeds” that will eventually sprout to get them to get themselves to a place that they can’t be dragged to.
“So, perhaps you are a farmer of ideas. (And after refraining from using a witty comment about “hammering swords into plowshares” I think my work here is done. 😉
However, the response that helped the most came from a longtime product marketing colleague, Mason White:
“Your sword? I have had most of a flight to pare this down to a bumper sticker.
Your sword is swordmaking.
How Skip makes swords:
Reading, listening, observing and discussing BROADLY and then reflecting to better frame the problems at hand, understand the relevant enviromment and synthesize a set of plausible potential solutions. Developing a set of definable concepts and vocabulary to improve communication about the problem, enviroment and solutions.
Wash, rinse, repeat to sort through the impacts of the candidate solutions. Present the choice space and a recommendation.
How many times do you suppose you have done this as a student, employee, teacher, consultant, executive, mentor and parent?”
In a matter of days, what I had spent several years of reflection and contemplation trying to articulate came flowing back in so easily from these wonderful treasured colleagues.
So off I go for yet another day to do my swordmaking.
Nice job Skip! Thanks for using and sharing your sword with strangers, with me. I will borrow your idea for feedback as I wrestle with, read and reread Coelho, drawn by the same questions that drew you. Cheers and Merry Christmas!