I write from the road, on the latest of my long trips for the Living Church Foundation, this one including time abroad in England and Italy. In each place, I have been welcomed by friends both old and new and experienced Christian hospitality — kindness, generosity, patience. And I have relied on numerous strangers when asking for directions, trusting taxi drivers or prices quoted, making reservations sight unseen, and in dozens of other ways.
We travel vulnerably. And especially in a foreign country where we don’t know the language, we are thrown pretty much continually on the mercies of those around us. It seems a sadness that amid metal detectors, fear of terrorism, and — at least in places like the U.S. — proliferating gun violence, we find ourselves wishing to become more self-sufficient, more introverted, in a bid for safety. Taken to the extreme, we might be tempted not to travel at all, safely tucked away with our own language and folkways and our preferred, if not quite purified, culture. In this case, the Christian bid to go to the ends of the earth as witnesses would simply go unheeded, and the call to serve the Catholica would collapse in a heap of neglectful resignation. I wonder what’s next on Netflix?
That the divided churches of the world even occasionally slouch toward forlorn defeat when it comes to mission should fill us with penitent fear and drive us back into the vineyard where our forbears in the faith valiantly toiled: the Vineyard which is the whole world of God’s creating, his oikonomia and oikumene that demands continual cultivating. It’s worth remembering that modern concepts of justice, including democracy and human rights, are hard-won fruits of sustained international labor and negotiation seeded by a would-be Christian civilization of love, harvested on the heels of Christendom, and sold in the many markets of the Gentiles.
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All of which leads me to wonder about the proper movement of Christians about the earth. Can we begin to sketch an ethics of travel, as it were? Several sorts of practical questions have arisen for me in the last days. For instance, is it not wise, as we are taught in American cities, to avoid eye contact with strangers walking along? And what or who is worth stopping for? We are typically happy to help inquirers in need of direction, the more if they are polite, well dressed, and fittingly meek in their neediness. The exchange can be invigorating and ennobling, appealing to the best within our natures to meet and welcome the traveler and reminding us of a wholesome interconnectedness. But what of the beggar, asking for more than mere directions? In Rome, the indigent on the street seem omnipresent, shaking plastic cups for coins before all but the poorest of the poor who pass by and, in some cases, walking alongside a person, even taking his arm, imploring with a series of questions and reported needs. Or they sit or lay on the street in misery, sometimes with head bowed down or prostrate, hands out, wounds or deformities exposed. I began saying Hail Marys (leading to half-conscious strings of sustained prayer) and smiling kindly as I nonetheless walked on by. Is this sufficient?
The man “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” who “fell into the hands of robbers” surely had reason to worry for his safety (Luke 10:30). It’s instructive, though, to think that just this story provides the occasion for Jesus’ teaching about exemplary care for strangers on the road: “a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (10:33). The Samaritan had his eyes open.
But there is more. For at the start of this same chapter Jesus sends out the disciples in pairs “to every town and place where he himself intended to go” — the vast corpus Christianorum, ultimately, stretching across time and space — to tend to the plentiful harvest (10:1; cf. 10:2). And they are sent unprotected, “like lambs into the midst of wolves” (10:3). Within this setting of a vulnerability offered and embraced, the first Christian missionaries are bid to travel non-defensively and in poverty: without purse, bag, or sandals, eating what is placed before them, staying put on arrival rather than hopping around (10:4, 7-8). And they travel with apparent purpose, since they are told to “greet no one on the road” (10:4).
This fits within the apocalyptic horizon of Christian mission, spelled out with perfect clarity by Jesus when he tells the disciples to announce to all whom they meet that “the kingdom of God has come near” (10:11), which will be both good and bad news. In some towns, the word will be welcomed and healing will take place, while in others it will be rejected (10:8-10). And the latter seems more likely, in light of our Lord’s immediate interjection of prophetic denunciations of several towns, the fate of which seem sealed:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades (10:13-15).
These judgments surely should be taken, in part, as pan-historical figures for the rejection of the works of Jesus and his Church in many places. All cities are not the same, and so call forth varying words of encouragement, reproof, and condemnation. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7).
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Is there, therefore, a Christian way to amble around a city — one’s own or in a foreign land?
Saints Peter and Paul walked in Rome prior to their martyrdoms and must have been accosted frequently, as elsewhere, by beggars in need of charity and healing. The earliest apostles were themselves poor and so were not in the habit of dispensing alms, though this is a venerable Christian tradition. But it seems incumbent for Christians on the road, and certainly on mission, to be prepared to pray with those in need and to preach the gospel (see Acts 3:6). I spent an evening in Rome with the saints of Sant’Egidio who feed and befriend hundreds of the hungry poor each week on the premises of their property in Trastevere, bathed in a warm and ever-present Catholic faith. And the Episcopal parish of St. Paul’s Within the Walls is enlivened especially by its daily ministry to 200 political refugees.
To be sure, our Lord prescribes travel in pairs. And there must be a place for business travel, when one is heading to a meeting or immersed in some pressing task ready to hand. But perhaps we should think of such work and such travel — hustling from point A to point B, with no time to chat — as an exception from the principled norm of Christian movement in public as mission, even if we rarely find ourselves moving around properly in such a manner.
Perhaps we have an analogy close at hand. Adult baptism serves as the principled norm of all Christian baptism, incorporating confession of sin and professed belief, with reference to which we have carefully carved out a rationale for the nearly universally practiced exception of infant baptism. Similarly, by keeping the memory of proper movement alive even when we are not on mission per se, our minds and our hearts may remain sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. If nothing else, we can remain in prayer, mindful of whose we are and why we are here, conscious of our continuous vulnerability: that we are imbedded in a web of divinely-wrought interconnection, reliant on those “who work while others sleep,” dependent “upon each other’s toil,” and that we are debtors, thrown on the divine mercies, having earned little and owing much more in the final accounting. We have been placed here to please and serve God with grateful hearts, starting with the little things, as St. Thérèse says, hiding in Christ our hopes and memories and very selves.
We share a vocation to vulnerability, incorporating the richness of our common vulnus in Christ. The tradition of Christian spirituality could be writ as an extended commentary on vulnerability as the wounds of sin, the fruitfulness of Christ’s wounds for us, and the call to take up his cross as disciples. In terms of an ethics of Christian travel, we walk with our Lord along the road with “obedience and meekness in our hearts,” in the words of Pope Francis, until we all may stand together within the gates of Jerusalem (Ps. 122). Then the nations will be gathered with the tribes of the LORD, and all our places of pilgrimage — our sees, shrines, miraculous sites, and their saints — will be founded in the one prayer and worship of the Lamb. He will wipe every tear from our eyes; “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” for the first things will have passed away (Rev. 21:4).
O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
The featured image is “Trains are red in Switzerland” (2007) by Christian Meichtry. It is licensed under Creative Commons.