Travel Lessons for Life: Planning and Letting Go

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Life should be approached the same way one approaches a trip to Rome.

If you have been to Rome, you know that the only predictable thing about a trip to Rome is the unpredictability.  A store will close when you need it opened, a funeral will be happening in a church you wanted to visit, the Pope will decide to leave the week you decide to come, and a bus strike will shut the city down the day you need to get across town.  This can be extremely frustrating for someone if they want to see as much as they possibly can in the short amount of time they have.

Rick Steves, travel guru, describes the country of Italy this way: “I love Italy for its idiosyncrasies—the fun, the unpredictability, and the serendipity.  And that comes with frustrations and complications. Precision in Italy seems limited to the pasta (which is exactly and reliably al dente). The country bubbles with emotion, traffic jams, strikes, and irate Italians shaking their fists at each other one minute and walking arm and arm the next. Have a talk with yourself before you cross the border. Promise yourself to relax, and remember it’s a package deal.”

One thing I’ve learned about Rome is to plan … and then be open to God’s plan.

The best trip requires knowledge and planning.  You could just show up and see where every day takes you, but if you don’t do any prior planning, be prepared to miss opportunities.  There are layers upon layers of things to see in the Eternal City, and they’re not all labeled with clear signs in ten different languages. If you don’t know what is in Rome before you arrive, you’re going to miss practically-hidden relics like the table of the Last Supper. You may not get to climb the Holy Stairs if you’re not prepared for it to be closed after lunch.  You may miss an opportunity to see the Pope if you don’t check his schedule ahead of time.  A great trip is well-planned.

At the same time, you can’t be married to the plans you’ve made. If you are, be prepared to miss opportunities.  Anyone who stays staunchly attached to the itinerary they made while at home risks missing the gems that come across the path unexpectedly.  A church you didn’t know existed has its doors open and is just asking you to pop in for a visit.  Who knows what you’ll discover inside?  Once I picked up my tickets to a papal audience and was unexpectedly given two extra tickets to a concert with the Pope.  Stay married to my original plans? I don’t think so!

Trips to Rome help remind us of the greater lesson in life: we must find the delicate balance between working and doing our part… and then being open to what God wants to do.

I just returned from leading a diocesan group on pilgrimage, and I was reminded of this almost daily. Work and plan the best trip possible, but be open to the fact that God might have an even better trip in mind.  Several months before we left, we received word that a papal Mass (around which I had planned the dates of the pilgrimage) had been cancelled.  My group took it in stride, even though this was possibly the only chance many of them would have to go to Rome and see the Holy Father.  A few days into the pilgrimage, we found out the Mass was back on, rescheduled for a different day.  Did it require changing our plans and missing things we had already scheduled?  Yes. But it meant that we were some of the only Americans at a small papal Mass (only about 1500 people in attendance) a mere 60 yards from the altar.

The plans we had made were good, but the plans God made were better.

I was blessed to plan and lead the trip with one of the best pilgrimage leaders out there, Mountain Butorac. He is good at what he does for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that he understands this life lesson.  Work and plan to make everything go smoothly. But be willing to throw it all away when God is working.

One of our last days in Rome, we were planning to have Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.  When all private Masses were cancelled in the basilica, Mountain went to Plan B: Mass at the North American College, where many of our diocesan seminarians live.  When Father began Mass, he pointed out that it was the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, founder of the seminary system. Although a seemingly small “coincidence,” it was just another smile from God that He had the trip under control.

We are not called to be passive in this life.  We are called to work and be active cooperators with grace.  A life of holiness, a life that is seeking heaven, is not a passive life that sits around and waits for things to happen.  We make plans and rules of life. We set goals and objectives. We pursue greatness.

But we must never think we are in control.  God likes us to make plans and goals, but He never wants us to get attached to them.  He has gifts he wants to give, and paths He wants to lead us down, and surprises in store for us.

The morning I left on pilgrimage, I sat outside in the early morning darkness with my cup of coffee.  I had my prayer book in my lap, waiting for the sun to rise.  We had grand plans for the group—even a few surprises tucked up our own sleeves—and I knew the trip would not disappoint. But despite all the plans and schedules and work we had put into the trip, I also knew it did not belong to me. This pilgrimage was the Lord’s, and He wanted to do great things.  We just had to let him.

And so there in the darkness, I spoke to Him out loud.  “This trip is yours, God.”  At the time, it was a bit of a threat.  But it was ultimately a prayer.

And a prayer I hope I can pray every day.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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1 Comment

  1. Although Mountain Butorac is one of our main competitors (i also own a Catholic pilgrimage company in Rome – Eternal City Tours), he is a great guy with a great name.

    His Catholic values and ours as companies trying to share the faith with pilgrims and agnostics alike who visit the Eternal City are a common bond and we recommend him as a good alternative to ourselves.

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