Silence.

 

So…you haven’t heard from me in a while.

You know that feeling when you jump off the diving board? When you hit the water and you sink almost all the way down to the bottom, and you have to strain a bit to get your head above water, but when you do, that first breath is so glorious that it hurts?

That was this past year and a half for me.

Now that I am well into my second year as a missionary, I feel like I’m finally coming up for air. Not in a bad way–I have been so, so happy spending time with people who have quickly become some of my dearest friends.

But in a way that is more like coming home after a long vacation.

How do I describe the students here, who are striving for holiness in ways I am just beginning to discover myself and who blow me away with a faithfulness of which I wish I would have possessed a fraction of in college?

How do I describe living and working as a team with people who have seen my worst faults and still choose to love and teach me anyway?

How do I describe what it’s like to feel my heart break over and over each day for the trials in the lives of the people I have grown to love?

How do I describe what it’s like to feel every one of my weaknesses at the same time, but still have to get up and go to the next meeting or talk to the next person or complete the next task, because people need me to?

Or what it’s like to hear again and again, thank you for saying that. That was just what I needed to hear. And to realize that that’s what it feels like to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit?

How do I describe the quiet place that Jesus has been leading me to, the place where He doesn’t talk as much as He used to, but just asks me to sit with Him  and feel His love?

Or to sit alone in a small garage converted to a chapel under the cloak of night and feel as close to Jesus as if he’s perched on the altar, whispering words just for me?

The truth is, I don’t know how to write about these things–I barely know how to live them! My heart is in constant overload, breaking and healing, sinking and leaping for joy, all. the. time. Even for a former English major, who considers words to be somewhat her forte, I don’t have the language to capture the truth, goodness, and beauty of this mission.

But I’m going to try.

Give me the road.

 

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I thought we broke the van.

It wasn’t a comforting thought to entertain, traveling to the base of a volcano deep in the Panamanian mountains. But after hearing metal scraping on rock yet again and bouncing over another boulder the size of a basketball, I was pretty sure that the deposits our mission team paid for the two ten-passenger vans were going to stay in Panama.

But that wasn’t going to stop us. It was our first full day in Volcan, Panama, and we were restless from traveling and ready to enjoy the buzz in our souls of being somewhere completely new and beautiful. And since our soccer camp for the local schoolchildren didn’t begin until the following day, we decided it was time for some extreme team building. So we loaded into the vans and took for the hills.

Not long after turning off of the main road and onto this dirt trail that led to the huge Baru volcano, we realized our mistake. The spray from a volcanic eruption five hundred years ago had scattered boulders as tall as we were all throughout the valley; and even though a road had been cleared, it definitely wasn’t clear. But, somehow, the laughter of twenty young people held the vans together as we bumped and swerved over this maze of rock and dirt.

Soon, though, we had pity on the vans, pulled them to the side of the road, and continued our trek to the base of the now-dormant volcano on foot. After we had been walking for about an hour and had stopped to rest, someone in our group noticed a path sticking out behind the hills: a paved road, one that our local guide told us, with a slight smile on his face, must lead back to the main highway.

The disbelief on all of our faces soon dissolved into laughter; and as a soft rain began to fall, our priest found a spot to set up an altar on the side of the road to say Mass. And in all of his awesome, fantastic, holy wisdom, he presented us with a question that had less to do with our trip to the base of the volcano and much more to do with life itself: would you rather take the highway or the road?

The answer was obvious. A smooth, quick trip would have robbed us of hours of laughter and conversation. The time we spent hiking and sweating and passing around plastic baggies of cereal made every bump seem just a little smaller. Forget the highway; we wanted the road and all it contained.

The rest of the trip wasn’t all highway, either. Panama was HOT. The mosquitos were fierce. The food took some adjusting, and very few of our travel plans went smoothly. But we wanted the road.

We spent a week playing soccer with nearly one hundred children. We made incredible new friendships and beautifully strengthened old ones. We met strangers who invited us into their homes (and even let us swim in their jungle-enclosed lakes up in the mountains!). And we laughed. Oh, we laughed. It was the kind of laughter that shakes the dust off of a weary heart, laughter that all twenty of us on the mission team desperately needed.

When posed that question, I don’t think any of us hesitated for a moment: we wanted the road. We wanted the laughs and the phrases that became running jokes the rest of the trip. We wanted memories. We wanted to be full of joy, because we knew how rare that feeling is becoming in the midst of so much tragedy and distraction. We had discovered, deep in the Panamanian mountains, one of the many ways to true joy. It’s a road.

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Slowly by Slowly.

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Even though I’ve been here for a little over two weeks, the beginnings keep right on coming! Yesterday began Welcome Week at UMD, when all the new freshmen move into the dorms and begin their college experience. They meet new people, sign up for new clubs, and begin to create the habits and routines that will guide them through their next four years.

So, naturally, we want to introduce as many of them to the Newman house and to FOCUS as possible, so that Mass and coming to Newman become part of those routines. Many students who stop practicing their faith in college do so in the first two weeks, so our work now affects students for the rest of their lives. It’s kind of a big deal. 🙂

As I prepared to go out onto campus, I found myself frantically trying to make sure everything was in order–flyers ready to be printed and handed out to students, emergency granola bar packed in case I was too busy for lunch, phone charged to collect numbers of students. But as I drove to UPS to print the flyers, hurrying to ensure that I was back in time to join everyone going out onto campus and scolding myself for not getting the flyers printed the night before, a radio interview caught my attention. A missionary in Africa was being interviewed and was talking about her work. She was comparing the cultures of here and there, and she said, “Over there, everything happens slowly by slowly.” And those words carved themselves into my thoughts throughout the day.

I thought of them as I fumbled through printing the flyers, only to realize once I got home that I had printed last year’s flyers, with dates and times that were no longer correct. So, I went back to UPS all over again, and got them fixed, slowly by slowly.

I thought of these words as a student and I walked around campus yesterday, trying to meet as many new freshmen as possible as they moved in to invite them to FOCUS and Newman events. I thought of them as I walked from dorm to dorm to dorm, looking for students who looked lost or waiting for one of them to ask me about my BulldogCatholic t-shirt. I didn’t meet as many people as I had hoped; at the end of our first day on campus, I hadn’t yet added anyone to a Bible study. But just when I would get discouraged, God would whisper in my ear, slowly by slowly. 

I thought of these words again as I sat at home that night. I was exhausted from the long day of walking every which way around campus and trying to engage so many people in small talk. I was discouraged, because I realized how high my hopes had been of how “successful” I would be at outreaching to students when I didn’t meet them. I had unrealistically expected the day to be more fruitful, but how often are we actually successful on the first day of anything?

That’s not how God works. He teaches His children patience. He tries to free them from the desire for instant gratification, because that is not of Him. If I succeeded at everything on the first try, if every student I greeted joined a Bible study, I would think that their response was because of me, that my work earns me everything I want. God would be completely out of the picture, the Ultimate Provider reduced to a spectator in my mind. Nothing could be further from the truth! He uses wait time to teach us that all is a gift from Him, due not to our works but to His love and mercy. He is training us to wait our whole lives for heaven and for His promises by teaching us to wait for what we want, for what we are working for here on earth.

God does not let us have exactly what we want when we want it, because He has much to teach us, and He loves us too much to let us remain impulsive and hurried and consumed by our own works. He delights in teaching us that going back to UPS a second time is not the end of the world and that we cannot love people if we are in a hurry to fulfill our own agendas. He wants to change us, and change happens slowly by slowly. So, by His hand, we wait. And we grow, slowly by slowly. And that’s okay.

The Good Life.

I’ve been back in the wonderful Good Life for about a week and a half, and I feel like I’ve only now begun to slow down enough to enjoy it. After spending 5 weeks in southern Florida, my appreciation for cool breeze, cooking in my own kitchen, and being able to live out of a closet instead of a suitcase are at an all-time high. I do miss the wonderful people (shout-out to my #UMDreamTeam!) and learning so much that I thought my head would explode in a good way, but being home means being one step closer to getting to campus, and for that, I am SO excited.

One of the main questions I’ve gotten from people since I’ve been home has been, “What will you actually do on campus when you get there?” And I work myself into a frenzy describing the Bible studies I will lead, the students and athletes I will mentor, the events I will help to put on, the trails I will find to run on, and so on, and so on. No day in the life of a missionary looks the same as the one before, so as much as I think I know what I’ll be doing, I’m sure I will soon find out that I don’t know at all.

I am especially certain of this because I had no idea what was in store for me when I arrived back in my hometown! From daily Mass and prayer to meeting with potential mission partners to writing thank-you notes and everything in between, I had no idea I would be this exhausted or have this much to do! On an increasing number of days when I haven’t had a spare ten minutes to rest from when I woke up to when I arrived home in the evening, I crawl into bed and I wonder, What have I gotten myself into??

But driving home from a support team appointment today, this song came on the radio, and the lyrics were that soul-piercing kind of perfect:

“Oh, this has gotta be the good life,
This has gotta be the good life,
This could really be a good life, good life.”

Fundraising is hard. Trying to get ahold of people during the summer is hard. Trusting God with your entire livelihood and being completely at His mercy is hard for my tiny, little human heart and mind. But when I get to talk to people about all the doors that Jesus has opened for me in my life, I remember that being a missionary is a good life. Having two other missionaries in my town to swap stories with and to encourage is definitely a good life. When I see the hope in the eyes of my mission partners that that the future of the Church is going to be okay, it’s a good life. And when I see Jesus move people to get outside of their comfort zones and commit to walking into this mission with me, it’s a good life.

“So please tell me what there is to complain about.”

I can’t think of a thing.

To My Fellow First Years…

To my fellow first years:

I love you. I mean it. If you’re anything like me, you could fall asleep in your Cap’n Crunch at any moment, you still aren’t sure what it means to “expense” something, and August seems ages away and right around the corner all at once. If any of those are true, then you should know that I’m praying for you. Because you are the future of the Church and the Church of the future. And you should also be reminded that we have the best job on this Earth, because we get a taste of Heaven every day–in the Mass, in prayer, and in each other.

Seriously, I’m inspired by you.

And though our weeks of training are almost over, I am so glad that we still have some time left together. And I hope you know how much I have enjoyed the past four weeks getting to know you. We have struggled together, asked the same three questions of each other over and over (what’s your name? where are you from? where are you going?), and seen the joy of the Gospel come to life before our very eyes. I hope that, in the past four weeks, you’ve found someone who you didn’t know before, someone who now feels like a lifelong friend. Someone who can quote movie lines that fit every situation and who sings at the top of their lungs in a way you wish you could and who frees you up to be yourself in ways you didn’t even know you weren’t. I have found that someone, and I am praying that you have too.

I hope your college slides in mud puddles, just because you can (and because the laundry’s free). I hope you get to run through the pouring rain and get ice cream that turns your mouth blue with your team and see a dolphin swimming around the pier at the beach like in the movies. I hope you get to pray under a lightning storm and in an empty chapel and with someone who has touched your life.

I hope you have been collecting beautiful moments like these and many more, because I’m sure there will be days on campus when discouragement darkens even the brightest of memories and Jesus seems too far away. And on those days, I hope we still have each other.

I hope we can call each other up and remember how far we’ve come since our very first MPD phone call on a humid Friday afternoon when we stumbled over our call scripts and secured appointments anyway. I hope we can laugh about the things we’ve messed up and rejoice in the things that have worked out despite our clumsy hands, knowing that Jesus was at work in both at every moment. I hope we can be Him for each other.

And I hope you know how excited I am for the Church of the future, because of you. This new generation of parishes will be bold, and alive, and overflowing in love, and bursting with truth, and ready to take on the challenges of this world all while leading more souls to Heaven than ever before. And that will be because of you.

Sincerely,

Me.

Verso l’alto.

Hello friends! It has been a long time! (My bad…Forgive me?)

As I was thinking about what I would say in my first post after a long hiatus, I was aiming for something along the lines of “Things have sure calmed down since the whirlwind of traveling to Mexico and Russia within months of each other…” But that is not the case. Within the last month, I ended an amazing fifteen weeks of student teaching, moved out of my dearly beloved college house, drove home for a mere sixteen hours of laundry, sleep, and the shuffling of necessities from box to suitcase, boarded a plane to Hawaii, spent eight days chasing adventures with my family and unsuccessfully avoiding sunburn, hopped a plane home for another few hours of repacking and sleep, and then got on yet another plane for my final stop in Ave Maria, Florida, for training for my new position as a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. What. Is. Life.

My roommates--the lovely ladies of Boo Radley.

My roommates–the lovely ladies of Boo Radley.

Now that I’ve finally settled back into a consistent time zone, it’s starting to hit me that I won’t be going back to Iowa in the fall. But only starting, because I still can’t process that my college house’s memory jar has been emptied, our pet beta fish has been buried (long story), and our kitchen will now host family dinners for a new group of tenants that couldn’t possibly love each other as much as we did. As much as we tried to stop the relentless onward rush of time, the seven of us are on to lives and experiences that will soon be too big for good ole Boo Radley, and who are we to stand in each other’s way?

Hence, the title of this post. Verso l’alto. Italian for “to the heights,” and tagline of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian kid only a year and and a day older than me when he died in 1925. He was soon on his way to becoming a saint, for his short life’s priorities included prayer, mountain climbing, and heroically serving the poor, not necessarily in that order. An adventurous young man, he was always striving for more and more greatness, more and more life. He certainly reached heights unattained by many after him, both spiritually and in his relationships with others, and has inspired many others, some much older than him, to reach for the same.

What could be better advice for a post-grad attempting to navigate the real world for the first time? (Seriously, if you’ve got any, I’ll take it. 🙂 ) Gone are the goals of the Dean’s List, the conference track squad, the president of such-and-such organization. I’ve got a new mission, thanks, to FOCUS, one that seems both daunting and exciting (and sometimes more of one than the other, depending on the day): To “invite college students into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. […]” Talk about heights.

I’ll not only be trekking day by day to those heights set by the parameters of the mission, but also across the country to a new campus! Come August, I will be traveling “to the heights”…

Of Minnesota!

My team! Please keep us in your prayers as we reach out to college students!

My team! Please keep us in your prayers as we reach out to college students!

I will be working at the University of Minnesota Duluth–a campus on a hill, so I’m told, so “to the heights” indeed. (I hope that means the campus is a bit closer to the sun?) My team will be responsible for leading Bible studies, mentoring students, hosting events, and inviting students into a relationship with Jesus in any other way we can! And I COULD NOT be more excited. I can’t even count the number of times I told friends, family, teammates, (people in my classes, random strangers…) “If I could pick one school, I’d definitely go to Duluth, but I know that won’t happen–I’m not that lucky. But I would still love to go there.”

AND IT’S HAPPENING. What??? I still can’t believe it. Add that to the list of “Things To Process Before Heading To Campus.” But I think that’s Jesus’s way of showing me that I shouldn’t limit myself to certain heights, calling some within my reach and some unattainable. His view is so much grander, so much more beautiful and perfect than my own, and this past week, I can just hear Him saying to me, “You asked for this… what else? Ask Me! Let me show you how much I love you!” Not that Jesus is a wish-granting factory (hello, The Fault in Our Stars… #sorrynotsorry). Instead, I think that He has huge graces He is waiting to pour out on each of us, but in honor of our free will, He wants us to ask for them first. I know that He isn’t going to let me stop until He’s placed me right where He wants me to do His work in this world; and again, who am I to get in His way?

As one of our teachers here at training told us, “Your job on campus is to bring Christ to students and to bring students to Christ.” Plain and simple. 🙂 And even though I’m sure the climb will seem like too much some days, or the rain and snow (LOTS and LOTS of snow) will come, I am certain, and Jesus has promised, that the view from the top and the people I’ll walk with along the way will be MORE than worth it.

Flashbulbs.

There is only one word that I can think of to describe my life as of late, and that’s whirlwind. In the past five weeks, I flew across the globe to Russia, spent three and a half weeks experiencing life completely differently, flew back, drove eight hours the other direction for a family vacation, attempted to remind my body to sleep when it’s dark and not when it’s light, and spent the last four days at home packing to leave for my senior year of college. I want to take a nap after just typing that sentence, much less living it! So even though I’m just starting to sift through the memories from my trip and to compose some coherent thoughts about what my team and I experienced, there are certain moments that stand out from the rest as those that defined the trip and gave me the most joy. Like flashbulbs, these moments are imprinted in my memory, giving light to the more difficult moments of the trip and shining as reminders to keep living life to the fullest. I’ll write more about the trip as a whole in the coming weeks, but to tide you over, here are my top seven flashbulb moments from my experience in Russia!

7. Afternoons on the dock on Russian Island with my team–During the second week of the mission, our team attended an international Catholic youth conference on Russian Island, about a twenty-minute drive from our “home base” church in Vladivostok. During the conference, we got to listen to a variety of talks and do some small-group activities, but thankfully, we had the afternoons free to relax and recharge! So during this time, some of us would walk down the short path to the country club on the island to sit on the dock, soak up the view, and catch a few minutes of shut-eye to be ready for the afternoon–easily some of my favorite moments from that week!

Enjoying each other's company and putting our toes in the Sea of Japan!

Enjoying each other’s company and putting our toes in the Sea of Japan!

6. Working with the Sisters in Jesus the Lord–these women were SAINTS! So joyful, such hearts for service, and incredibly inspiring. They truly lived out Christ’s call to serve the poor, always with smiles on their faces. Plus, they were a rockstar trio of musicians. We were in the presence of greatness!

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5. Team bonding in the Rec Room in Vladivostok–Once again, spending time with the team was a highlight of our time at the rectory in Vladivostok. From playing cards to line dancing to some haphazard volleyball, Team America could make any average night a night to remember.

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4. Our “secret adventure” with Victor–In between camps, our translator surprised us with a trip to some cliffs overlooking the Sea of Japan, where we got to hike down to the water and spend some time admiring the amazing view and the unfathomable reality that we were actually. In. Russia. While the hike was a bit of a challenge (at one point, I didn’t think my sandals would make it any further; but after two minutes of watching the rest of the group go on without me, I decided I did NOT come to Russia to wait on that hillside!), the view was so very worth it.

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3. Baking cookies for the Young Adult Conference–During the conference, we had natives from various countries cook food each day. So, on American day, we cooked up a huge vat of macaroni and cheese and a bunch of french fries. And I don’t know if I was just missing my kitchen or if I needed a little taste of home, but I volunteered to whip up a few batches of my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe for our international friends. It ended up being a pretty profound moment–as I went through the motions of adding ingredients according to a recipe I had memorized and have made countless times over the years, I was struck again by the seeming impossibility of recreating this recipe in Russia, as well as the feeling of bringing something completely new and completely my own to the conference and the almost unreasonable joy that it brought me. And I think it brought the attendees joy as well, because both double batches were gone in under five minutes. 🙂

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2. The soccer game in Lesosavodsk–Hands-down an unforgettable evening. One of the parishioners knew the coach of the local high school team, so they agreed to host a match with us! Although I think we were all a little spooked when we got out of the vans looking a little rag-tag and lost to find a team with cleats and jerseys practicing before our game, once the ball got rolling, we all had a blast (hahahahaha–wink to Team America on that one!). And though they beat us 4-2 even after going easy on us so they “didn’t hurt the girls”, as our translator told us, we hoped they would concede to calling it a tie after we beat them 4-1 in penalty kicks. This incredible game not only satisfied my workout itch for a couple of days, but it also reinforced for all of us how universal sports are and how a little bit of friendly competition does much more for mutual understanding and respect than any political negotiation seems to. I say we throw our world leaders onto the soccer field and let them go at it until they are smiling as wide as we were :).

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Team America in green, the Russian high schoolers in red.

 

1.  Teaching the campers the actions to Days of Elijah–I could go on and on about our amazing experience working with the kids at the youth camp in Lesosavodsk (and I probably will–stay tuned for Russia blog post #2!), the one moment that sticks out in my mind as the BEST OF THE BEST of our entire trip was teaching the kids some songs with actions that are a cornerstone of my home parish’s own youth camp that I’ve been involved with for six summers and counting. On the second day of camp, the sisters had taken the kids through a bunch of songs in Russian while we were waiting for their meals to be delivered. When they ran out of ideas, one of the sisters asked if any of us Americans had any songs we could teach them. And considering I had just wrote in my journal that morning how fun it would be to teach them these songs so near and dear to my heart, I jumped at the chance. I had Victor translate each line into Russian so the actions would (hopefully!) make sense, and then, abandoning all mental whisperings that I can’t sing, I did just that. And four repetitions later, seeing the kids doing the actions and trying to sing along with me just about brought me to tears in thankfulness for Tintern’s impact on my life and it’s influence in bringing me to Russia. Just like with the cookies, I was again sharing an integral part of myself with these kids. Camp would not have been the same without these fun and engaging songs, which felt like a squeeze on the shoulder from Jesus that I was in the right place, just where He needed me. In addition to Days of Elijah, we taught them Lord, I Lift Your Name On High, Big House, and Every Move I Make throughout the course of the week; and seeing some of the kids singing the melodies on the way to the park on the last afternoon was beyond rewarding–it was one of the many affirmations throughout the week that we had made a difference.

Behold He comes, riding on the clouds!

Behold He comes, riding on the clouds!