I have learned the hard way - through many a tortured battle with airport scales around the world - to travel light. So my modest 14 kilograms caused no convulsions at the Manchester airport, and I confidently watched the check-in attendant fasten the label around my bag, designating its intended destination: Bilbao in Spain, via Frankfurt. A half-conscious thought flickered through my mind. By the law of averages, I thought, I should be due for a baggage disappearance anytime soon. But I dismissed the possibility as readily as I had dismissed my week’s worth of clothes, books and other travel essentials.
Soon I was relaxing in the spacious luxury of economy class, relishing the on-board rations of a roll and your choice of still or sparkling water and noting with a certain satisfaction that the plane was descending toward the Frankfurt airport with admirable northern European punctuality. I would have the full hour I needed to navigate Frankfurt’s labyrinthine ways to locate my connection to Bilbao.
"We apologize for not being able to land," droned the pilot’s voice, shattering my reverie and announcing an extended tour of the skies above mid-Germany’s metropolis, awaiting permission to land. We finally hit the tarmac at precisely the departure time of my connecting flight.
But one traveler’s delay is another’s salvation, and the connecting flight was likewise running late. Another roll and another water later (still, please), there was Bilbao sparkling below me in the afternoon sunshine. This was going to be good. I was heading for no less a place than Loyola, home of St. Ignatius, and I was going to be enjoying the company of the great and the good - 200 or so Jesuits and their collaborators at a stimulating conference. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how long do you have?
My bag had apparently either failed to make the distance in the race to the connecting flight, or it had opted for an even more congenial destination. Wherever it was, it was not in Bilbao. "Where shall we send it, if we ever find it?" enquired an obliging damage-limitation attendant in Spanish. Which was the moment I realized I did not actually know where I was going. I had neither address nor phone number. So I volunteered, weakly, the only information that came to mind: "It’s Loyola," I said, helpfully. What else could there possibly be in Loyola except "Loyola"? Which was when I shed another illusion: not everyone, not even in Catholic Spain, has heard of Ignatius Loyola.
Thus it was that I arrived in the hallowed precincts bereft of all encumbrances. Unpacking was achieved in record time, leaving me plenty of opportunity to reflect on how it feels to be far from home with virtually nothing but the love of those into whose bosom you have fallen. It was a salutary experience. The kindness of my fellow delegates and the host sisters was overwhelming. One came with a T-shirt for me to sleep in, another with a little bottle of shampoo, a third with a spare toothbrush and toothpaste, and a fourth offered me the freedom of her own bag to use anything I might need. Perhaps we discover the goodness of our fellow travelers only when we are reduced, however temporarily, to nothing. The conference had begun for me, with a lived experience of the treasure that is to be found in the human heart when material things disappear. Hardship, even of a minimal nature, is a great revealer of blessings.
Halfway through the week we took an excursion to Javier, deep in the rugged hills of Navarre, birthplace of St. Francis Xavier. From a day packed with evocative memories, perhaps I can share just one special moment with you. We had been guided through the ancient castle, stronghold of the Xaviers, and noted how its formidable mass was built into and upon the solid rock of the region. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful image of security. The young saint-to-be was nurtured here until he was 19 and went to Paris as a student, where he would meet Ignatius and become one of the first of the Companions of Jesus, and where his carefully laid plans for a life of power and influence would be definitively derailed by the Holy Spirit.
Something drew my glance up to a ledge high in the castle ramparts, and I noticed two pigeons fly forth, leaving the shelter of the castle and entrusting themselves instead to the winds and the skies. Where is the greater security, I wondered - in the stones of our castles or in the spirit that guides our flight? Where did these saints of God place their trustin the legacy of fame and fortune or the unpredictable path of pilgrimage? Where do I place my trust - in what I have and can hold, or in what I discover only when I have lost what I thought was mine?
As we celebrated the final Mass, I prayed the words of Ignatius: "Take, Lord, and receive, everything I have and call my own. All is yours. Dispose of every gift and every moment entirely according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.
My prayer was answered! I am once again waiting for the courier to call, bringing my wayward bag, which disappeared on the return flight too, preferring a night in Frankfurt to the benefits of home. "By the law of averages," I had thought as I waited in vain at the carousel last night, "lightning shouldn’t strike twice in one week." I should have known better. I am learning not to try to second-guess the ways of the God of surprises and to trust the journey more than the baggage.