Last month marked one year since the start of my junior semester abroad in Rome. Because of the timeliness, and the fact that I’ve never shared it in full before, I thought now would be a good time to tell my story, inasmuch as I can do it justice.
My Life’s Cross
First of all, for most people who study abroad, the importance of that time for them begins after they get there. It wasn’t so for me. Why? Well, I have a physical disability – my right arm and leg are abnormally weak. If you watched me walk you would probably just think I had a limp. But, in addition to taking small steps, and having a leg length discrepancy, I have an issue with my feet, both on my left and right leg. If I’m standing still or walking, my feet will ache much more quickly than an ordinary person’s. Throughout most of my life, these and my other physical issues effectively prevented my becoming much of an athlete.
However, a disability does not normally preclude participation in a study abroad program. My particular problem was that my college had never had a disabled student go to Rome with them before. I wasn’t the first such student to simply attend the college, but the Rome program only began in 2002, so this was uncharted territory for both me and the staff. Freshman year, they gave me preliminary information, including the important fact that on a light day I would have to walk at least 2 miles, which I had done only once, years before, and a heavy day could be as much as 5, which appeared absolutely impossible.
I Loved the Idea of Rome… Or Maybe Not.
Simply put, for the next year I thought that my even trying to do it would be pointless and stupid, though I did choose not to do the easy thing and drop out early. Then, after sophomore year, I went home for the summer and knew I wanted to try, though I honestly thought I had lost all desire to go to Rome anyway. That period had its difficulties, as in between the running I had started for Rome, physical therapy, and home therapy exercises, I was sore a lot. Still, I think the most difficult training was after I went back to school and had access to a treadmill. I had certain goals per day of exercise and hated to stop prematurely for almost anything, whether nausea or foot pain unlike any other I could remember. Though reaching my goals was extremely gratifying (I went over 5K at maximum incline, something for which I heard even able-bodied people have to train to achieve) it actually had a strong counter-effect. Specifically, I felt so tired from the exertion that I didn’t think there was any way Rome could be worth it, no matter what its devotees said about it, yet I also didn’t want to give up after discovering I was stronger physically than I had ever known. Furthermore, there were also other, unrelated factors influencing me, such as having to say goodbye to my graduating friends five months early.
End result: though I had climbed a huge personal mountain just to feel semi-prepared for Rome, I was still conflicted about it, and had a good amount of remaining inclination not to go. Then God made His will known. Our last day to decide happened to fall on November 1st, the Solemnity of All Saints. What I remember of that faithful All Saints Day now is receiving a more definite answer to my problem than I would ever have expected. The best way I can describe it is that it was like a powerful physical push, but it seemed to come from within my body. There was never any question in my mind that it was God, nor of what He was telling me. Any idea I had left of dropping out was destroyed, and the feeling was so strong I don’t know whether I physically could have.
Thus was my decision made. In spite of God manifesting His will to me, from December to February I unceasingly regretted “my” choice, as the cons of it seemed constantly thrown up in my face, and the pros were nil. Regardless of my struggles, the 21st of February came at last, and off to Rome I went. From the moment I first disembarked at Fiumicino airport, there were many challenges, beginning with filing a lost form for my carry-on luggage, and for the first week I still wished unequivocally that I had stayed on campus like I wanted. After that, as I began to get used to Roman life, I started to enjoy the unique experiences, even those inconvenient ones like going to the grocery store and barely being able to read a word on anything.
In spite of my somewhat increased peace with Rome, and unfortunately, though God was perfectly willing to make the decision for me, He also decided to make me wait for the answer to why. This made my bad days a thousand times worse, but even so, as Isaiah 55:8 says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord.” Thus, in my case, instead of finding the answer immediately like I wanted, what I have of it came to me by degrees. If I remember correctly, I think the first realization came to me on a mandatory tour day—which I tended to enjoy the least because of the increased amount of walking. Wherever we were, it was also something of a tourist attraction. At some point while there, I had a thought along the lines of “Well, here we are to see this place because of its importance to us as Catholics. Yet, those tourists are there to see it because they think it looks cool…” Then it hit me. Obviously those people didn’t see the greater importance of the site, because they didn’t know any better!
Catholicism and Secularism in Comparison
Yet, why did the site even begin to be important in the first place? Ignoring the legitimate but non-theological arguments, it became significant because God decided that it should be so. But, the non-Catholics around me couldn’t see the hand of God in that place the way I could, because they were seeing it as the world does. If memory serves me right, Frank Sheed argued in Theology and Sanity that the theological perspective was the most mentally sound, because according to Catholicism it is not merely an opinion but a matter of sanity to see the hand of God in all existence. I saw something of the contrast between that and the opposing opinion played out in front of me in Rome, since I knew the observant Catholic’s viewpoint was totally different from what most of my fellow pedestrians on the streets of Rome seemed to believe. (For example, I won’t forget the two men in San Pietro in Vincoli who posed for a photo standing up in a confessional with cheesy grins on their faces.)
Then I wondered: I had always believed that the Catholic life was greater than the secular, but why did Rome make such a difference to something I already knew? As the best that I can phrase it now, it’s for two reasons: first, because Rome is the heart of the Church, which accentuates all contrasts. Second, it’s because what I did there showed me how a human life ought to be lived. When I did things like go to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and see what tradition holds are the relics of Jesus’ manger, I touched, in more ways than one (even if only with my eyes), something I had never really understood.
Put more simply, I mean that while I was in Rome, even what I did for fun was in some way connected with my Catholic faith, and I was nothing but happy with it! What this gave me was the opportunity to actually live some semblance of a good, well-ordered life. I felt as though my finite human eyes had been opened just a little a bit more and I could see how to live fully, touching the sacred through even the normal aspects of life. As I learned better than ever during this time, the proper Christian life will have everything, including recreation, ultimately aimed at advancing the greater glory of God. Of course, that is not to say that even our leisure time should always be overtly religious; that is just the vehicle God used to speak to me when I was in Rome.
Catholicism for Truth; Catholicism in Hearts
Furthermore, I was really able to experience and understand Catholicism as something more than principles on a page. Catholicism was that for the sake of which St. Paul lay crammed in a tiny cell and St. Peter faced death on a cross. Of course, the truth inherent in it is there too, since they and so many others would never have died for something they didn’t believe to be true. Yet, I personally find it more beautiful that they weren’t suffering just to defend Catholic doctrines in themselves, as absolutely necessary as doctrines are. Rather, the martyrs suffered for the sake of Someone dear to them, and that Someone was Jesus Christ. Knowing what they did for love of Him then helped me to grow in faith by osmosis.
Additionally, there’s also the point that just agreeing to go to Rome was an experience in personal growth for me. Obviously my faith was strong enough that I was able to believe that God was telling me to go in the first place. The more interesting point is that He has never before or since told me something so strongly, particularly considering that Rome was against my will. Therefore, in my case, in addition to being beneficial in other ways, it was an exercise in obedience that led me, I hope, to grow in faith in a different way. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days when all I wanted (and even did) was to scream at Him, “Why did You bring me here? I didn’t want to go through this! I shouldn’t have come!” However, a year later, I’m able to say that I don’t regret choosing to go to Rome, knowing first that I made that choice out of obedience.
Disabled? Yes, but also the Bionic Woman!
There are two things about my story I haven’t yet explained. The first is, having persevered through all the preliminary pain, whether I was up to the actual challenge of Rome physically. Second, disregarding both God’s lesson and the matter of obeying Him, whether the semester as a whole had merit for me. As for the first matter, new though it was, the exertion did not kill me. It was definitely more walking than I had ever done in my life, possibly excepting training. However, pretty quickly my body got used to it again, and I was able to accomplish new things that might not be as remarkable to someone else, but were very new ground for me. A friend even called me “a superstar” when she saw how much I was walking.
My personal favorite exercise story is how I went exploring on Holy Saturday and ended walking down the Via Del Corso for around a mile, just so I wouldn’t have to guess my way home. (I did sit down for almost the entire Easter Vigil because of that, but I still enjoyed the experience.) Overall, I was extremely pleased with myself, considering I overcame a boatload of physical challenges along with my own adversity to going. I’ve imagined that if I were to appear on a “values.com” billboard that it would say either “Overcoming” or “Perseverence” on top, and be captioned “Not even she thought she could do it-until she did!”
Was God Right?
That leaves one more question. I achieved something, but, other than as an act of obedience, was all that effort worth it? Did actually making myself go abroad have any real merit for me? Well, despite inconveniences ranging from waking up pretty much every day with sore legs to being crammed like a sardine in a metro car, as I told those who asked me, “[Rome] was stressful, it was expensive, it was emotionally and physically exhausting… and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!” Beyond a doubt, God knows what He’s doing… even if He chooses to drag you across an ocean. I know, because He gave me the grace to follow Him just that far.