The first time I went on a retreat with Youth 2000 I stumbled upon it by chance. I was in London over Christmas on my own, unexpectedly single and dealing with the diagnosis of a chronic illness for the first time. I was signing up for anything that would stop people from pitying me. I volunteered at a Christmas dinner for the homeless and my uni chaplain was going to this retreat so why not? I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve made friends I still have. I remember walking into the chapel during Adoration for the first time. I’m a cradle Catholic but somehow never saw it before. I looked at these young people and the devotion shining through and I prayed. “I want to love you with that love”. They were beauty personified to me, and I wanted to be that way too.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. I’m so prone to unbelief I make Doubting Thomas look like someone of unwavering faith. This means that I swing from St Paul to borderline excommunication with one serious episode of anxiety. It gives the enemy a most powerful weapon, as well as giving God many opportunities to see me prove myself.
To the eyes of people outside the Church, Christianity seems to be a lot about morality and being a good person, and thanks to the various incarnations of the “Prosperity Gospel” everyone expects that if you play by the rules you get rewarded. It’s a mentality that is common in the Church too, with many people treating prayer as a sort of vending machine in which you put the coin and get what you asked for. And it is true that we are told to ask and it will be given to us, but it doesn’t always go our own way and faith is about learning to endure it when it happens. Like Job.
Last Friday was nothing in comparison to Job’s life, although while living it, it definitely felt 1000 times worse. It started with waking up really early after a very tiring week to say goodbye to my friend who was leaving after her holiday. I had just about managed to get started on my long to-do list when power was cut: the agency had not paid for the electricity. It took 5 hours before someone sorted it out, and by then it was time for me to go to meet my coach to Walsingham, with a portable battery only half charged and a phone battery dying after using my data to get the most important things done. Thanks to not being able to cook, the dinner I had bought so I didn’t have to rush became my lunch, and so there was no dinner and I had to rush. I struggled up and down the stairs with my luggage and took the train, it turns out it was not the fast one. Changing at Victoria Station was a nightmare enough to make me want to just go back home. I persevered, I was already half way: Euston seemed even worse. I’ve got lost on the way to the meeting point, my blood sugar running low and a headache coming up: I’ve arrived, at last. And the coach had an accident, and we needed a replacement. At least it bought me time to get food into my belly!
I was going on a retreat, part of me wanted the reward for being such a good girl and part of me started to look at it as a welcome conclusion to a nightmare. At least once I’ve arrived, set up my pop-up tent (because I was camping!) and inflatable mattress, I would have been up for 3 days of slowing down my rhythm and spending time with Jesus. It would have all been worth it. And that’s probably the biggest lesson. Catholics have this manner of speaking that puzzles most people, they are fond of saying “Offer it up”. Are you in pain because you hurt yourself? Offer it up. Anxious about an exam? Offer it up. What it basically means is whatever negative is going on in your life, approach it from a place of gratitude because trials are our way to partake in the Passion of Our Lord. All the saints have gone through so much worse. They’ve been tested with fire, often quite literally (like St Laurentius of Rome).
It goes without saying that’s not how I normally react to struggle by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, thanks to being in a sanctuary in the middle of nowhere in the Norfolk countryside (with limited phone coverage) this past weekend, I’ve learnt to appreciate being uncomfortable even more than I did last year (when I have pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone towards being more charismatic).
I’ve walked the Holy Mile the way pilgrims used to do it, because what is walking barefoot (even as a person with arthritis) compared to your mother’s cancer? I’ve tried not to be angry and resentful and most of all not to get up and channel that anger shouting in the face of all the people that woke me up at 3am being loud. I’ve not snoozed my alarm for Adoration at 7am despite the lack of sleep and knowing there would have been about 10 other people in the tent so there was no need for me to cover. And I even went running afterwards, despite feeling like I just couldn’t take it anymore (and I couldn’t, actually, and it was a really stupid thing to do, and I paid the consequences).
There is something freeing in a “whatever you throw at me, I’ll get it” attitude, and so I sang and worshipped like there was no tomorrow, trying to get an impression in my heart to take back home with me, where I knew trials would start again. I run a business, everything is always on the brink of collapsing! (I think entrepreneurship is really the embodiment of the saying “If life throws you lemon, make lemonade.”)
I didn’t know the troubles were going to start already in Walsingham, with the coach for our return not showing up. It brought some great moments of fellowship, but part of me really wanted a little reward for all I had done. I’ve slept in a freezing tent for three nights! I’ve not killed anybody despite the lack of sleep! I’ve dedicated most of my waking moments to prayer! I’ve refrained from telling people about the Holy Mile not to seek the approval of men but the approval of God who knew I had done it. Can’t I just get an easy day for once? Of course not, that’s not the way to sainthood, which I have so eagerly demanded on that day at the end of 2014. And now I’m back in my spacious room in London I can smile, appreciating the adventure out of my comfort zone as a story to tell my grandchildren if I ever have any.