In July and August, I spent an extended amount of time in two of the most well-known pilgrimage sites in Europe: Lourdes in southwestern France and Medjugorje in Bosnia. Lourdes sits at the foot of the Pyrenees, and this tiny rural town has welcomed millions of pilgrims to its shrine and grotto for more than 150 years. Lourdes is a place of healing; thousands of pilgrims come here each year to bathe in the holy waters and pray for healing of body, mind, and soul. I felt a deep spiritual and emotional connection from the moment I set foot in the shrine, not just with God and the pilgrims in my tour group, but also with the thousands of complete strangers who were there at the same time, and with those who had walked the same hilly roads to the famous Lourdes grotto for almost two centuries.
When we turn our focus outwards, whether that is in service, exploring new cultures, or pursuing intentional relationships, we can find beauty, goodness and fulfillment, even amidst a suffering and chaotic world. I was blessed to experience all three this summer while halfway across the world, traveling across Europe to some of the most beautiful and holy sites I’ve ever seen.
My pilgrimage to Medjugorje included celebrating Mass, praying the rosary, and adoring Christ in the Eucharist with over 500 priests and 300,000 people from 72 countries throughout a week long Youth Festival. One would think that such a large crowd of people would mean chaos and distraction. However, instead, I truly experienced one of the core messages of Medjugorje: “Peace, peace, peace!” In the midst of a crowd of thousands of people, I was able to find the one person we all came to seek: God, the Father, whose peace surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
Being able to serve others and receive love and peace in return was, to put it lightly, a life-changing experience. Opening my heart to the Lord and the opportunities and people He placed in my path this summer allowed me to experience a peace and joy I didn’t know was possible.
Here are 10 lessons I learned that humbled, uplifted, challenged, and fulfilled me:
•GATHER Europeans love to gather and enjoy long conversations over leisurely meals. The most meaningful exchanges I had during my travels came from down time spent with new and old friends as we set up picnics, prepared meals, or simply prayed together. Our time together was intentional, unplugged and relaxed. It gave us the opportunity to not only be fully present and engaged, but also to focus on exploring the depth of our friendship. Getting to know another person in this way was (and is!) so very fulfilling. The friendships I made on this trip were so fruitful, I believe, because they were rooted in faith; while getting to know each other, we were also pursuing, together, a relationship with God. We all crave community and our lives are meant to be lived with others. Let’s give it to ourselves each day by focusing on intentionality in our relationships. #gathertogether
•REST Making time to rest is a habit that takes discipline to implement. Though it may feel impossible to ignore the phone, power down your laptop, or put up the out-of-office message, it isessentialto our well-being. Only when we eliminate distractions and embrace silence are we able to recharge our hearts and souls to prepare for what God is calling us to do and who He is calling us to be. This trip was the first time I fully unplugged for an extended time in years. Without constant distractions and interruptions, I felt more connected to God in prayer than ever before. The theme for all pilgrims visiting Lourdes this year is, “Do whatever He tells you,”an already challenging command becomes impossible for those of us who don’t make time to listen or are distracted by the world.
To apply this message to my daily life, I’m committing to a weekly Sabbath: one total rest day a week that is centered around God. In addition, I make space for a “mini Sabbath” each day — an allotted time every day for rest and prayer. Our worth is not based on productivity, but on the simple fact that we are human beings with an invaluable dignity. You don't have to do anything to have value; you just have to be.
•QUALITY In our culture, particularly in Americanized Western culture, more is more. Whether we realize it or not, we are always feeling pressure to do, have, and be MORE. During my time away, I was able to fully appreciate choosing quality over quantity at every touch point: food, possessions, friendships, and experiences. Because I was able to eat the highest quality food, I didn’t suffer from digestive discomfort, even though I was eating food that most trendy American diets would consider “unhealthy”, such as bread and cheese. Because the quality of my activities was so rich and rewarding, I didn’t need to fill my calendar with tons of to-dos and busy work. Because I was walking everywhere all day, every day, exploring new places, functional movement was natural and enjoyable as opposed to another block in my schedule.
•SERVE In Lourdes, I served alongside several fellow pilgrims from all over the world helping other pilgrims get in and out of the healing baths as they savored the deeply spiritual, peaceful experience of the healing waters. It was the most humbling experience of my life. My then seemingly trivial worries melted away almost instantly. My first shift I was with mothers and babies from places I’ve never seen -- Africa, Japan, India, and more -- speaking languages I didn’t know. The only thing we shared in common was our faith. I helped them enter the baths, hugged them, prayed with and for them, carried them (physically and emotionally) and cried with them. Seeing the outpouring of God’s mercy upon these souls, observing their deep faith and desire for healing, and being able to serve them, was a pure gift, and I was so incredibly humbled and grateful to be a witness to it.
•FOCUS Fix your gaze on what is most important. In the pews of some of the most beautiful churches in Europe-- in Paris, Lourdes, Lisieux, and others--I was able to fix my gaze upon the Lord without the distractions of daily life and work. It refreshed my soul and gave me a renewed focus on God that I’ve brought back home with me. With God at the center of our lives, we strive for an unbreakable faith. We can admit our brokenness and recognize our need for Him. Keep trying. If you fall, He will help you dust yourself off and try again. Fix your eyes on Him and everything else in your life will come into focus. #holygaze
•IMITATE We are created in the image of God and we are called to imitate Him, not try to BE Him. We can only discover who we are by loving as God loves. Thomas a Kempis writes, “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.” When we look at others, we are called to love their souls, as Christ loves their souls. We are not asked to judge, even if we think they are worthy of our judgement. We are asked to love them in truth, sincerity, welcome, mercy and humility, as God loves each one of us.
•FORGIVE One day in Medjugorje, I saw a t-shirt that stopped me in my tracks. It read: “Forgiveness of others is the secret of peace.” Christ forgives us so readily; let us try to forgive those who wrong us in this way. In Lourdes, the Lord filled my heart with so much peace and love; I was then able to share the love of Christ with others as we served in the healing baths. God pours His mercy out upon us so that we can then share it with others, whether in forgiveness or in service, or both -- let’s keep the cycle going.
•SMILE In France, I had the opportunity to visit the small town of Lisieux, home of St. Therese. St. Therese de Lisieux reminds us to smile no matter what... to be joyful even in suffering. In her young life, St. Therese suffered a great deal but loved even more -- and she reminds us that we don’t have to do huge things to show love. We can do so in small, everyday things like smiling at those around us, or bearing little wrongs patiently. Everything that happens to us, God allows; and when we remember this, we realize that even our sufferings are a gift because He knows what is best for us. Our small acts of love, your smile, can be a gift to someone else. Showing love in the small things, even in suffering can be a gift to yourself, and to others.
•GLORIFY Glorify God in everything that you do. Every thought, every word, every action — let it be done in an effort to glorify Him. “Go in peace, glorifying God with your life” is something I hear almost every Mass, but on one particular day on my pilgrimage, it really struck me. I heard it. Glorifying God sounds like a grand concept, but the truth is that the opportunity to point to Him lives in the details of our everyday lives. As St. Therese of Lisieux writes, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
•BALANCE A theme that came up continually throughout my trip and that I continue to reflect on is “both, and.” The center of the cross is where the world and holiness collide — where the horizontal and vertical meet, the place where we live. It’s the place we are given freedom and free will--and an invitation to live in the gray. Yes, I am black and white with my faith — firm in what I believe in and stand for — but outside of this foundation, I like to have “both, and.” I enjoy my personal growth journey AND helping others grow. I eat a salad for lunch AND occasionally like a piece of chocolate or three. I work really hard AND take off as much as possible. I can give to myself AND take care of others. I can allow myself to be vulnerable before God -- to be truly known -- AND be authentically loved. And so can you. #bothand
This summer, I truly found beauty in letting go of myself and embracing others in service, while forming incredible friendships rooted in faith. I received and accepted this unique invitation to prayer and evangelization that God has asked of me, with confidence. The best, and perhaps most challenging, part of it all is now putting what I learned into practice every single day when I’m at home or work -- not in a stunning European city. God is everywhere and though going to these places filled me with abundant grace, it is at home where it counts the most. We are here to love, to serve, to be faithful to what the Lord is calling us to do--right here, right now.