Arthur removed a folded white handkerchief from his right hip pocket, wiped his eyes, blew his nose, then turned toward me. He had regained his composure, and only his red-rimmed eyes betrayed the distress he had just experienced.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from. It just hit me, and I couldn’t control it.”
“I understand completely,” I assured him. “And there is absolutely no need to apologize. Think of it as the valve on a pressure cooker. You obviously needed that release.”
“I suppose I did,” he said, as we resumed our trek back to his office. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve been carrying a clean, white handkerchief in my pocket every day for as long as I can remember. I never use it. I also carry a package of Kleenex. I think blowing your nose on a handkerchief is unseemly.
“Every day, when I take a clean, white handkerchief from the drawer and slip it into my hip pocket, I ask myself why I am doing that. And then today, the one day I forget to put that package of Kleenex in my jacket pocket, I find myself in need of that handkerchief—finally.”
I wasn’t looking at Arthur, but I sensed he was smiling. I knew I was.
Our three-block walk ended too soon, as we arrived at the front door of Arthur’s office building. He opened the heavy storm door, and as he started to step inside, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my car keys.
“I should probably be going,” I told him. “Our ninety minutes are almost up, and I have some errands to run on the way home.”
“I understand,” he said. “But if you have just a minute longer, I have a book I’d like to give you.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m not in that much of a hurry.” I followed him through the foyer and into his office. He walked over to his desk and picked up a small green and brown softcover book which was lying there.
Before he handed me the book, he asked, “Do you remember, when we were in England a few years ago, we talked about other pilgrimages of that sort that we would like to make in the future?”
I nodded. “You mentioned the Camino de Santiago,” I said, referring to the ‘Way of St. James,’ a pilgrimage trail across northern Spain that terminates in the city of Santiago de Compostela, which, according to legend, is the final resting place for the relics of the Apostle James.
“Yes, I did,” Arthur acknowledged. “Truth is, I hope to get there this fall. I’m already training for it.”
[The Camino was the setting for an excellent feature film, called The Way, which came out last year. The movie stars Martin Sheen, was produced by his son Emilio Estevez, and tells the story of a man’s spiritual awakening as he walks the Camino following the death of his son.]
“And do you remember the pilgrimage you said you would like to make?” he asked.
“Well, I said I wanted to get back to Ireland to climb Croagh Patrick,” I answered.
“We both want to do that,” he said. “No, I’m thinking of a different location, someplace that is particularly important to you.”
I thought for a moment, then asked, “Assisi?”
Some years ago, about the same time Arthur was discovering his Celtic heritage and was finding the story of St. Patrick irresistible, I found myself similarly attracted to the life of St. Francis. At the time, I was just beginning to think seriously about the implications of ‘radical discipleship,’ and Francis represented a human example to which I could relate.
“Yes, Assisi,” Arthur replied. “I came upon this book shortly after we got back from our trip to England. Over the next few months, our small group worked through it. It was both a blessing and a challenge.”
He put the book in my hand.
“This edition is out of print, I think, but a revision will be released this spring. I had a couple extra copies, and I thought you might enjoy it. Consider it my way of saying thanks for your being willing to put up with me over the past few weeks.”
“Believe me, Arthur, it has been my pleasure,” I said.
I looked at the cover of the book he had given me. It was called Chasing Francis, and the author is an Anglican priest named Ian Morgan Cron. I saw that the title was followed by the words ‘A Novel,’ and I mentioned that to Arthur.
“Yes,” he replied. “Technically, it’s a novel. The contemporary characters are fictional, but the story includes a lot of references to the life and ministry of St. Francis. Much of the story takes place in and around Assisi, although the main character is an American pastor.
“It’s well-written, and I think you’ll appreciate both the story and the way he tells it. It actually ties in very well with the things we’ve been talking about. If you can find time to read it in the next few days, perhaps we can discuss it when we meet again.”
“Won’t that be next Monday?” I asked.
“Probably,” he answered. “Unless I start to feel uncomfortable about that episode on the sidewalk and decide to postpone another meeting until the embarrassment subsides.”
“I’ve told you, you have nothing to feel bad about,” I said. “I’m glad it happened. It helped me understand some things I didn’t really appreciate until today.”
“I’m curious about that statement,” Arthur said. “But I’m not going to push you on it. At least not today. Just read the Francis book, and I’ll call you in a few days to talk about when we want to meet again.”
“I’ll do it,” I promised. “And I’m really sorry about that conference. It’s their loss. I know that God could have used you to speak truth to that group.”
“Actually, it’s probably just as well that they cancelled me,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“Because I wouldn’t have said what they wanted to hear,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well, those big meetings are designed to get people all wound up and excited. The sponsors for this one are colleges and seminaries and publishing houses and mission agencies. They’re using it to do recruiting. They mainly want speakers who will tell stories to entice these kids with a vision of the yellow brick road. I couldn’t do that.”
“What would you have said?” I asked.
“I would have told them that sometimes things don’t work out so well,” he said. “Sometimes, even when you do everything possible to faithfully follow the leading of God, the result can be uncomfortable, even painful.
“I would tell them that faithfulness does not always yield success; that courageous decisions can be misunderstood; that single-minded commitment to Christ and the church and the Kingdom of God can be a difficult pilgrimage, and you could actually end up sitting on the sidelines when you would really like to get back into the game.”
Arthur turned away. He gripped the back of the arm chair in front of him. After a few seconds, he looked at me again.
“Read the book,” he said.
“I will,” I promised.
I opened his office door and stepped into the hallway, then paused.
“Oh, and Arthur?”
“Yes?” he said.
“Buen camino to you, as well,” he replied. And he smiled.