A Few Reflections on Modern Itinerancy
I’m writing this post sitting in BWI airport just outside Baltimore as I prepare to board my last (scheduled) flight of the 2012 calendar year. Those at least vaguely familiar with my travel schedule for speaking events, board meetings, and the occasional wedding, know that I’m on the road a lot. There are lots of people I know who absolutely despise air travel — or any travel for that matter. Yet, there are others for whom it is not much of a choice, work or family obligations require frequent trips to the airport, train or bus station, or long rides in the car.
As time goes on it seems that I fall more and more in that second category of people, with speaking requests and other obligations requiring travel more frequently. Fortunately, I (usually) enjoy it. Asked earlier this Fall by some of my classmates how I put up with being on the road so often while managing the responsibilities of academic work and pastoral ministry, I simply responded that I’m able — in a counterintuitive way, I admit — to get as much, if not more, work done in airports, on planes, on trains, or on buses than I do at home. Curiously, there are less distractions when traveling than at home when all of your quotidian comforts are in near reach. Reading and writing are activities I find more relaxing while in the company of others, particularly strangers, because I’m not tempted to chat instead of work.
Regardless of how I productive I can or cannot be on the road, the travel can still be grueling. I readily admit that now and then I also feel the effects of weekly flights, the monotony and absurdity of the TSA lines, the long drives on highways, and so on. Yet, there is something about this whole experience of being on the move that is entirely resonant with my vocation as a friar minor, a Franciscan.
Francis of Assisi, if he was obsessed with one thing, was obsessed with itinerancy. Many people think about Francis (after thinking about his connection to creation) in terms of his radical embrace of evangelical poverty. One of the most striking ways he modeled this detachment from possessions and places was through the insistence that the friars were to be itinerant after the example of Jesus.
As we read in the Gospels, Jesus himself said that “birds have nests and foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was on the move without a typical place to call “home.” He commissioned his disciples to do the same, going out into the world and into villages that would welcome them.
Francis of Assisi is often remembered in the early sources for chiding his brothers who became too “comfortable” in one place or established a residence in a “convent” (not to jab my Conventual Franciscan brothers too much but, historically speaking, this was a big reason my branch of the OFM family broke away from the “Conventuals” — the increasing adoption of a more standard or parochial way of life. Today, however, we’re all similarly shameful by Francis’s 13th-Century standards).
I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity and the very humbling privilege to be invited to speak at universities, parishes, retreat centers, and elsewhere, all over the country. One of the ways I understand my ministry in the church is through the modern form of itinerancy that comes with these various groups, schools, parishes, and organizations that bring me out to different parts of the country.
As I flew from Atlanta, GA, this morning after spending the last three days at the Catholic Center of the University of Georgia, I reflected a little on itinerancy and the positive impact this way of life has had on my understanding of what it means to be a friar and a Christian more generally. I have the unique joy of meeting so many people of so many different backgrounds, ages, worldviews, and experiences. I get the chance to preside, preach, lecture, converse with, and learn from so many people and my faith is inspired and strengthened by each and every encounter.
I don’t take any of this for granted, knowing that some folks who would love to have the chance to visit so many places and meet so many wonderful people often don’t have the chance. It is, in a sense, a great luxury and honor to be in a form of ministry where organizations generously pay your way to have you speak. I recognize this vocation to itinerancy for the challenge and grace that it really is: an unsettling reminder of our Franciscan call to resist the security of a regular lifestyle and a true gift of travel, relationship, encounter, teaching, and preaching.
My prayer as this calendar year comes nearer to a close is that as long as I am called to do this sort of ministry through writing, speaking, teaching, and sacramental presiding, that I may have the grace to continue with a spirit of gratitude (even with 6:00 am flights and annoying TSA agents) and a willingness to respond to the invitations of others to share my gifts and to learn from and be inspired by others along the way.
UPDATE: Yes, for those who are curious, the 2013 speaking schedule is already filling up, but it’s intentionally less packed (so far) than 2012.