I vividly remember my first complete thought as I sat down on the bed and cried in my hotel room that first night: “I don't belong here. I want to go home.” Our group had just arrived in Lourdes, France for the first leg of our World Youth Day journey. We had just completed a marathon of travelling, eaten a late dinner, and spent quite a bit of time tracking down our pilgrims, who seemed to have scattered in every direction. This was the first moment I had had to myself when my phone rang. My fiancée was calling to say hi and see how our trip had gone. His voice and my exhaustion broke down that last little bit of control I was holding onto.
What was I doing here? Three months ago, I was a fresh college graduate starting a new, exciting job. Before this trip I had never been on an airplane, much less out of the country. Suddenly, I was thrust into this new experience of being one of a few staff members in charge of this large group of pilgrims as we made our journey to Madrid, Spain. I was overwhelmed, jet-lagged, and trying to keep it together in a place so full of people and languages I didn’t understand. How could this be what I was called to? How could I make it through the rest of this trip when all I wanted was to be back home, where I really belonged?
My attitude the next morning was not much better. I was still exhausted and our group just seemed too chaotic to handle. I thought to myself that this was going to be the worst, and longest, 10 days of my life. Even at Mass, I held on to my stubborn attitude. No amount of coaxing was going to rid me of the belief that our trip was heading for disaster.
As the day progressed, I kept waiting for that disaster. Thankfully, it never came. What came instead was a change of heart. In one of the many churches in Lourdes, our group gathered for our own penance service. My first reaction was to go into control mode; I wanted to make sure that priests were settled, that stations were organized, and that lines were running smoothly. In the midst of my control-freak spree, the words and smile of a dear deacon (now priest) friend of mine made me stop. For the first time since leaving America, I allowed myself to feel the presence of Christ. He was here, as pilgrim after pilgrim was absolved of their sin. I could feel the happiness in the room, and (to my surprise) it was contagious.
Walking back into the sunlight, I saw things much differently. Lourdes was beautiful. The faces of all the people, even those who were the most ill, were filled with joy. I thought that, perhaps, there was actually something to be gained from this trip.
Those few days exploring Lourdes, spent in prayer and admiration, were truly life changing. Our Lady was really there, in the faces, smiles, and words of so many of the people I encountered there; she was teaching me more about myself than I had understood before.
It is still easy for me to lose sight of joy. I can be too easily bogged down or overwhelmed by life. But, with a word, a glance, or a smile from someone, friend or stranger, I am reminded of my short time with Our Lady in Lourdes. Still today, she is teaching me to be a better person, a better follower of her son. She hasn’t given up on me yet, so I keep working at becoming better than I ever thought I could be.