Though it may border on cliche to say that there are unexpected moments that define one's life, or at least put it into perspective, this maxim holds true. I have monumental proof.
On October 6, 2007, I kissed my wife goodbye, hugged a kindly older woman and got on a shuttle bus that would transport myself, eight co-workers and two spouses to Rome via Chicago and Zurich. The kindly older woman? My university's president, a Sister whose vision, deeply felt conviction and sheer budgetary moxie sent us overseas to walk in the footsteps of Saints Francis and Clare, who hail from a town called Assisi in the Umbria region of central Italy.
See, my university is a Franciscan Catholic institution and our president has sent a handful of staff, faculty and students to Italy each year since 1999 to deepen our commitment to and understanding of our Franciscan heritage. And to learn a thing or two about leadership. Now, I'm not a particularly religious fellow, but I have always been intrigued in and vexed by matters of the spirit. Keep in mind that this was not a vacation for any of us, but rather a kind of historical walking tour with lots of Mass, food, wine and introspection.
Throughout our six days in Assisi, I was given many opportunities to lay my thoughts bare to myself and others. I took advantage of almost all of them, keeping a few things to myself. There will surely be future posts that reflect on these moments, but the one that's sticking in my head today is a small but powerful one:
Sister Annie, a compact, passionate and energetic woman who served as one of our three pilgrimage leaders, was recounting the story of how she went from being the CEO of a large health care system in Pennsylvania to being a pilgrimage leader who literally walks dozens of groups like ours through the lives of these saints and the lessons and legacies they leave behind. In talking about her transition and her need to do something that was truly calling her, she posed a question to our group, 40 strong from all corners of the U.S. (and one from Africa), all walks of life and all ranks within our respective institutions and organizations:
"What is really important?"
I'm quite likely paraphrasing the question, but it struck me in a way that being asked the same question in Milwaukee never would have - what was really important? Here we were, four thousand or so miles from home and loved ones, effectively severed from our cell phones, computers, televisions, offices, lifelines, distractions and the general cacophony of everyday life. You admit to yourself pretty quickly that your perspective has changed... a rock is no longer a rock, but a glittering, porous, hefty chunk of history to be meditated upon. A bench isn't a bench, but a conveyance - an ancient repository of songs, stories and sorrows, an organism unto itself.
So the question loomed in my mind for days - what was really important?
I'm not sure that I've yet answered it, but I have a pretty good idea. I made the decision while hiking up a mountain called La Verna (more on that later) to streamline my life as much as I could, to focus on the things that I felt passionately about and to cut out the rest.
It isn't easy to do, but it's necessary. I'm working on it, and I feel better already.