Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rome: Anxiety and Thanksgiving

Anxiety always seems like a good thing to escape from, but sometimes it may be a doorway to thanksgiving. In the incredibly hectic days since I returned from my Roman pilgrimage I’ve been trying to snatch moments to makes sense of the experience.

One characteristic of the trip both prior to and during my time in Italy, was anxiety. I’m not an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I’m a wimpy, fearful traveler. As a result I had a long, neurotic list of things I was worried about. I would lose my money and passport. I would get hopelessly lost in overseas airports. I wouldn’t be able to find a sufficient supply of chocolate and other scenarios too horrible to contemplate.

But I discovered that pilgrimage is about turning anxieties into blessings.
Being a pilgrim requires a healthy dose of humility: an awareness that you really don’t have a clue what you are doing and like Blanche DuBois you “always depend on the kindness of strangers.” Traveling takes lots of patience with yourself and with everyone else who is probably just as tired, sweaty and confused as you are.
And so I spent a lot of time pointing, smiling and (trying) to say “grazie.” I was at the mercy of people who spent most of their days having to deal graciously with clueless tourists, many of whom couldn’t seem to figure out why things weren’t exactly the way they were at home and why everyone in Italy didn’t speak English.

In my newly humble state I came to appreciate an infinite array of Italian gelato (ice cream) sellers who understood “chocolate” and “due euro” quite well. I appreciated a very Italian parade of efficient Vatican ushers who herded the cats/tourists to the proper places in the Vatican with great aplomb and panache. Even the Italian trains were amazingly efficient and the Italians demonstrated admirable sangfroid in the face of being squashed together with hot, sweaty people trying to decipher schedules, stops, tracks and whether there would be enough time to get some gelato (do you detect a pattern here?)

Perhaps the key to the transformation of anxieties into blessings is realizing that we aren’t in control. Most of us have “control issues,” we like to know what is going on, we want to feel like we can predict and decide what is going to happen in our life; anything less results in stress and panic. The perennial joke of course is that the key to spiritual growth is letting go of control and making room for listening and responding to God. Being on pilgrimage is a remedial, crash-course in this fundamental lesson. When you are in a strange place, off-balance and way out of your comfort zone it is time to take a deep breath and trust that God is present.

And then when we come home the trick is to continue to take deep breaths and remember what we learned on pilgrimage.

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