“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God, do you learn.” ~C.S. Lewis
If I had to sum up the two years that have passed since my Catholics on Call experience in just a few words, the above observation by C.S. Lewis seems especially fitting. Before my 2011 conference I was still riding the high from a series youth retreats I attended a few years earlier, and I believed that having this “high” was indicative that I was answering God’s call. As long as I felt head-over-heels and excited about God the way I did after my first retreat in 2008, my relationship with him was where it needed to be. So I chased that high by attending more retreats like the first, getting involved in my college’s retreat program, studying up on the saints, and spending much of my free time in prayer. This, I thought, was how to be a good Christian.
But I’ve been realizing lately that, as valuable as retreats and worship are, much of that “experience” that C.S. Lewis was talking about does not happen in the friendly confines of a retreat center or in the solitude of study and prayer. These things are important. But we can’t depend on them alone for getting to know God and how he talks to us; much of that happens just through daily living, if we’re open and receptive to it.
That “high” that I mentioned above had fizzled out a few weeks before my Catholics on Call experience. I no longer found the same joy in prayer and retreats, and I feared that the disappearance of those feelings meant that God had stopped talking to me or that I was straying from God’s call. It took me several months to finally accept that perhaps that joy went away for a reason and that God was still calling me, but that I’d have to try to find him in different places, outside retreats and studying and intense prayer.
I still haven’t figured out where God wants me, and I never did reclaim the joy that I once found in my former ways of trying to encounter God. To top all that off, these last two years have been some of the roughest of my life. My junior and senior years of college were stressful. I’ve been through more, emotionally and spiritually, than I can probably even begin to describe here, and that forced me to learn some uncomfortable truths about myself that I didn’t see in my narrow-minded pursuit of Christian perfection. I began to understand, through school work, service trips, and other places, just how deep and overwhelming the world’s hurts are. And all that caused me to doubt God at times: whether he cared about me, whether he cared about all the suffering in the world, whether he even exists.
I think I’m a better person because of all that, though, because despite the fact that I’m still trying to find where I feel the happiest and the most at peace, I think I’ve learned more about God and his call than I ever did in my obsession with prayer and discipline. I learned that it’s hard to hear God in a vacuum, relying only on oneself to figure out where God is leading, without the help of other voices and experiences. That’s not how Jesus, the one I sought to imitate all along, operated; he taught friends and strangers, listened to those who needed him, and went out of his way to heal and forgive. I think this is what he demands of me, and all his followers, as well: that I make myself available to others, that I reach out, that I try to understand and help and love people who are hurting, not that I hide from all the things that I don’t agree with or understand.
My changing attitudes about God and how to learn my own calling have resulted in an increasing desire to live for others, not just for myself and my own security. Showing love to anyone is a risk; not only does it force me out of my comfort zone, but it also opens me up to the possibility of being hurt, used, or rejected. Seeing that I no longer find comfort and joy in solitary pursuits like I used to, perhaps it’s time to stop hiding from the world and to branch out. I don’t know yet what form that might take. All I know is that I feel compelled to do something. It might result in me getting hurt, but I think it might also result in deeper understanding, compassion, and C.S. Lewis said, even further learning.