I turned away from the lost-and-found baggage counter at the airport in Rome. Over the course of the last two and-a-half hours, it had become clear that if my suitcase was anywhere in the airport, no one could tell me exactly where that might be. I had waited in line for over an hour, been shown into a room full of unclaimed bags and asked if mine was among them (it wasn't), then waited in line again to file a report.
Thanks to a strange, twisting travel itinerary filled with delays, reroutings, overbooked flights, and long waits in airports in four countries, I was arriving in Rome a day and a half later than planned. My luggage, apparently, hadn't arrived at all.
It's a good thing, then, that the purpose of my trip to Italy was a pilgrimage following the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. For 12 days, I traveled around Rome and Assisi, visiting the tiny chapels, cavernous cathedrals, secluded caves, and city streets where the Franciscan way of life was born. During this time, I discovered that a focus on Franciscan spirituality is a wonderful way to minimize the disappointment of a lost suitcase—and in fact, the missing bag offered an opportunity to practice many Franciscan virtues! For example:
We all know that Francis embraced his Lady Poverty and sought to live with as little as possible. While I didn't renounce all my possessions and go barefoot through the Umbrian Valley, I did discover that my needs were far less than previously imagined. On the second day of the trip, I made a list entitled "Things I will Need (If My Suitcase Doesn't Turn Up Soon)." A week later, I revisited the list and discovered I had bought only half of it—the rest had been borrowed, scaled back, or simply not needed after all.
How many times must I forgive those who wrong me? Seven times? No, seventy times seven times—which, coincidentally, is about how many times I called the airport to check on the status of my missing bag. Keeping Saint Francis in mind while I spoke with airline and airport representatives was a good reminder to see them not as part of an inhuman bureacracy, but as brothers and sisters—shared recipients of God's grace and love. Our common humanity was reinforced by the cluster of angry people in the missing-luggage line at the airport, whose frustration frequently boiled over into shouting, sobs, and cutting to the front of the line to interrupt others. It's easy to have empathy for "the other side" when you can see how difficult "your side" is being.
It sounds strange to say, but there is pride involved in good packing. I had been excited to fill my suitcase with the right equipment for whatever the pilgrimage might throw at me. Bug spray for the forests where St. Francis sequestered himself to pray? Check. Sturdy shoes for the cobblestone streets? Check. Corkscrew for an impromptu bottle of wine? Big check. At the beginning of the trip, my response to every need was, "Oh, I could help with that—if I had my suitcase." A few days in, I began to stifle that reaction, recognizing that behind the joking was a need to let everyone know how well I had prepared. Instead, I simply accepted that I would need the help of my fellow pilgrims—which, in true Franciscan spirit, they were happy to provide.
Nine days after I said goodbye to my suitcase in Cincinnati, and a week after I filed a missing bag report on it, a group of nuns brought it to Assisi from Rome, where it had finally been found. Living without it for so long made me incredibly grateful for the reunion—and even more grateful to the sisters who carried it to me and the other pilgrims on the trip who lent me toiletries and phone chargers to get through the week. The world is full of wonderful and kind and generous people—a fact that works far better than possessions do to cultivate gratitude.
Of course, being a white upper-middle-class American who goes without her suitcase for nine days is nowhere close to experiencing true poverty or trial. But if living with less, even temporarily, helped me to understand the values of Saint Francis a tiny bit better, then it's an experience I'm happy to have had.