Lessons from Abroad and from Within
On the 12-hour flight home, everything hits me. On the loudspeaker, the pilot speaks first in English, then in Italian. I focus on the rise and fall of his syllables; try to pick out the few Italian words I can identify. I have spent the last three or four weeks itching to go home, aching with homesickness in a way I have never experienced. Even the magic of Christmas in Rome with my parents was dulled by my homesickness. And now, on this plane, the clouds trailing in wisps thousands of feet below me, I feel torn. It’s difficult to reconcile the many definitions of “home” in my head.
I spent four months embarking that adventure of a lifetime that so many SCU junior and seniors undertake: study abroad. I studied in Barcelona, the loud, glimmering metropolis of the Mediterranean Sea, tucked in the northeastern region of Spain. I had heard the clichés over and over: “Oh, study abroad is great. You learn so much about yourself,” and blah blah blah. I arrived thinking I’m lucky that I already know myself.
Then again, we must ask ourselves what it means to know the self. I believed, foolishly, that having an understanding of my passions and a rough vision for my life equated knowing myself. As if there was not more of me to discover, more of my heart to reveal itself in the face of cultural differences, unforeseen challenges, and the awe of travel and immersion.
In my whirlwind four months in Spain, I realized that I could know myself more thoroughly by better knowing the world around me. When I opened myself to possibility, the world offered itself to me, unfolding to reveal great narratives of culture, history, and real people, all these things pregnant with the potential to educate me.
This time helped me to recognize that having questions about your faith is okay. Doubting everything, in fact, is okay. I have always considered myself Catholic, but have, in the past few years, had increasing questions about what it means to be Catholic, and also what I might learn from other faiths and traditions. Spain is, of course, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, where almost 70 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Still, in my time abroad, I was exposed to the rich history of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula, I met people of varying faith backgrounds, and became friends with a number of people who are not religious at all. In addition, I was exposed to the epitome of Catholicism, touring some of the oldest, most exquisite cathedrals and basilicas in the world, learning about the nuances of Catholic history in Europe, and even attending Pope Francis’ Christmas address at Saint Peter’s Square in Rome.
It was not until my return, perhaps, that I realized how spiritual my time abroad had been for me. And in reflection, it was not these diverse religious encounters or even the exposure to great symbols of Catholicism that made the experience particularly fruitful. It was simpler than that. It was purely my being in the world. The deep friendships I formed. My heightened sense of responsibility and independence. My wonder at everything in its novelty. My uninhibited freedom. These things made my experience profoundly spiritual, and charged with meaning. These things fulfilled the cliché prophecy I had shrugged off just months before... I learned so much about who I am and who I want and need to be in the world. And most importantly, I encountered the divine in all these things. It’s okay that I am still full of questions and doubts. I wasn’t seeking God or spiritual answers when I went abroad. But I found that God made Himself known to me in a thousand ways. Just as I believe one can learn about the self by learning about the world, I believe learning about the self can lead to learning about God.
Returning now is strange. The essence of bittersweet. Having been so homesick near the end of my trip, I am excited to return. Yet at 30,000 feet, I realize now that I had made a home in Barcelona among the people and the places I had come to cherish. I am divided, aware that I will soon feel homesick in a new way.
Santa Clara is as beautiful and lively as ever. My friends and I are equally thrilled at our reunion. I try to settle back in, but it is an odd sensation being in a place that seems essentially unchanged while I have undergone some kind of renaissance.
It is important to remind yourself that although travel helps awaken the mind and spirit, you can experience God everywhere and in every season of life. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the man whom we can thank for our value-based Jesuit education, knew this well. One of the central tenets of Ignatian spirituality, in fact, is finding God in all things. Returning from this adventure and settling back into my life at SCU, I find it comforting and exciting to know this is possible.
Indeed, the ways in which I was learned about myself and about God while abroad are accessible everywhere. You can form and maintain deep friendships anywhere if you are open and committed. You can take hold of your sense of responsibility and independence always. You can experience wonder in that which is novel and in that which is familiar. You can experience uninhibited freedom by your own choice.