By Carolyn Shields
As you begin this new chapter at le université, your faith is going to experience some changes, good or bad. Your prayers may shift, the way you pray may change, and how often you pray could flip. I wanted to share four key lessons that I learned from the universal church that pertain particularly to freshmen but also to any gal who finds herself saturated in terms like curriculum, co/op, advisor, and other fun academia slang. Ready? Great.
I studied in Dublin for three months when I was a sophomore in college. There was a church in our alley way that had something like five daily Mass times, and I began going every day...though a huge part of that reason was because the guy I had a crush on would go. (Read more about that here). But I fell in love how everyone seemed to say the Mass parts in their own tempo. Here in America people monotonously say the Our Father or Mass parts and everyone sounds like robots to me, or I get the impression that people aren’t aware of what they’re even saying, so in this kind of disunity that I saw in the responses in Ireland, you had to be extra aware of what you were saying, and at the same time, everyone was on the same level. But the biggest thing that I loved, also kind of seemingly disjointed, was Communion.
Again, in America everyone goes up to the altar in an orderly line, pew by pew, and it's all very uniform...in Ireland it was like a freaking free for all. But what I loved was this image of hungry sheep just flocking to the altar, and the priest would go around distributing communion. And that right there is my key takeaway from Ireland: it’s sometimes okay to just be sheep. That’s why God gave us a Shepard, right?
You know the Gospel when Jesus came to his disciples after He rose from the dead, and He tells them to cast the net on the other side and they eat breakfast? When I first thought about it, I was like “Shoot, I can’t believe Jesus wasn’t exasperated that after everything, his disciples went back to fishing.” But He didn’t say “Why aren’t you out evangelizing the world? What the heck are you doing going back to fishing? Guys, come on, what are you freaking doing?” Should they have been out there, working as apostles now that they have the Good News? Well, probably, yeah. But I loved Jesus’ attitude in this passage because it was kind of like, “Man, they’re just doing what they know. Where they feel comfortable.” And sometimes that’s all you can do.
We can put a ton of pressure on ourselves to be better, to go change the world, whatever, but sometimes at the end of the day, it’s important to know that it’s okay if you’re just an 18 yr old guy who misses his mom, or it’s okay if you’re a 25 year old woman and just need a hug from your dad. It's ok if you just have to resort to what's comfortable and safe and easy for a little while.
It’s okay to just be a sheep sometimes.
I never really wrote about my experience in China, possibly because it was what initiated the avalanche in my life that led to me creating theYCW. (I did write a little about it here though). In China the lesson was a bit more intense. I went to Beijing as a junior in college to meet people in the underground Church and build relationships with the young people there and learn about their experience. I should also slide in the fact that when I was 12, I earnestly studied the Catholic situation in China because I was determined to be a martyr there by the age of 15. (I wasn't a totally normal child). So when I got a spot on this exclusive pilot trip, it was an "Oh shoot" moment, a "What is God asking me to do?"
Anyway, one of the most profound moments in my life was praying in the basement (literally underground) in a closet where they had this safe which acted as a tabernacle, and we turned off all the lights and people spoke in tongues...but the sense of paranoia was palpable there. There was this moment where we were talking about St. Paul and being persecuted for our faith, and the physical discomfort rippled through the room to the point where this one young Chinese missionary ran to close the windows and shut the blinds.
My key point from China is that people are always watching. And I know that translates differently for you freshmen, but what I mean is simply that your peers are watching. They will see you go to daily Mass, they will witness your joy, and they will watch you behave at parties and whatever other social events you are at. And I think truly, that’s how many hearts are won over...I remember being in college and looking at upperclassmen I admired and thinking “What do they have that I don’t? How can I be like them? Comfortable with themselves or seemingly happy?” It wasn't my chaplain or the campus ministers or even the young FOCUS missionaries. It was my peers. And it took a while, but I watched them and realized it was the faith. It was the faith that made them radiate.
So your peers are watching.
Lastly, Uganda was a trip I went on two summers ago. I was there for a month as a kind of personal retreat. I knew I needed to get away for a while and long story short, I ended up in the middle of Africa. My faith at that time wasn’t great. It was kind of a really low point in life for me in general. I was questioning a lot, angry at God, and really hurt from a bad relationship, and one of the only ways I could pray would be stargazing, because stargazing didn’t demand that much from me other than just laying there.
The thing about Uganda is that it’s in the heart of Africa, and I was in a remote village where the nearest city was around 4 hours away so the stargazing was phenomenal. More than that, it was a totally different sky. Because I was south of the equator, there was nothing but new constellations. I also had 2-3 hours each night where I had nothing to do but lay there. Only a small handful of people spoke English, there was no electricity inside, and I’m petrified of mice so God conveniantly placed one in my room in order to ensure I couldn't retreat there. It was like God knew we needed to talk and it took taking me to Africa to do so, but not even that...he did so through my ultimate love language. And even though I was the only English speaking white person in God knows how many miles, I didn’t feel alone. In fact, it was a point in my life where I felt the least alone ever.
It’s so incredibly easy to feel like we’re going at it alone. To feel like we have to do it by ourselves. To carry the weight on our own. But that’s so far from the truth. In Genesis you know how God keeps creating stuff and it says, “At the end of this day, he saw what he did and said, this is good?” The first thing that God said was not good was when he saw that man was alone. God not only formed one half of the race (woman) to fill this universal ache, but He gave us His very Son to fill this void or cavity when we lack a human person to accompany us. Wait, that's not it. He gave us the Church to also ensure that when we do recognize Christ, but still yearn for community, that we could also seek communion with those around an altar.
We are never alone.
Lastly, I moved to Philadelphia about two years ago and immediately felt so out of my element.
Environment: ivy league school, faith that stems from intellect, leadership as an idol, big city
My heart: little Catholic liberal arts college, a faith that stems largely from experience and emotion, never a desire to lead, small town to the core
And this list doesn't cover half of it. I was so overwhelmed, had no idea what I was doing, and my head was just barely above water. But after a year, I came to understand that the reason I was called to this city is precisely because I'm so different. That's what this place needs. It has more than enough vocal people who want to state their opinion, but it needed someone to help them soften their voice. It has more than enough people who can dish out Catechism quotes, but it needed someone who wanted to talk about beauty. And on and on.
So I learned, maybe it's because you feel like you don't fit in is precisely why you are necessary.
In these four years, your faith will be forged and formed, and the lessons you will learn will be invaluable for the rest of your life. Tuck those truths close to your heart, especially the ones that were learned through fractures. You will remember them far, far longer than what you'll study in Macro Economics or whatever it was.