Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our eighth round of bloggers: Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer in New York City, and Julianna Lewis is a VIDES+USA volunteer in Bogotá, Colombia. This is Sarabella's fifth blog post. Read more about her.
My personal journey of spirituality began at birth. I was raised in a loving Catholic family. My parents were married in the church and vowed to raise their children Catholic. When I was little we attended Sunday school and vacation bible camp, where I learned that God and Jesus love me just the way that I am. I have fond memories of those times, but I also remember hating going to church. Once when I was around 9 years old I wanted to wear my bathing suit to church. I vaguely remember feeling proud about my outfit choice and excited to wear it, like being proud to show off a new purchase to a close friend.
My parents promptly explained why this outfit choice was not suitable for church, which didn't make any sense to me at the time. If God loves me all the time, as I am, no matter what, why wouldn't God love me in my bathing suit? My parents tried to explain that church is God's house and you want to look nice in his house. I didn't understand why I could wear my bathing suit to my friend Katie's house, but not God's house. It seemed the same to me!
When I was a little older, around 13, I started feeling very anxious in church. I hated going because my body would feel restless and so uncomfortable. I would pretend to be asleep on the occasional Sunday when we didn't have a sports tournament so I wouldn't have to go. Most of the time it worked, even though I'm sure my parents knew I was faking it!
However, in eighth grade we went to Washington D.C. on a school trip. In between seeing multiple monuments and historical sites, we visited a church. It was probably a cathedral, based on the size and grandeur of it. I remember tilting my head as far back as it could go and seeing wall after wall of gorgeous stained glass. I remember it being so colorful and magical with the sun streaming through. I was overwhelmed with what felt like God. I left the building feeling joyous, like I wanted to jump up and down singing. I remember saying, "That made me want to be a better person."
Despite this stand-out moment, my attention to religion and spirituality steadily dwindled as I entered high school. I went on to get confirmed, but that was more like checking something off my to-do list than something I was invested in. Despite that, my grandmother, who was my confirmation sponsor and to this day is the most religious person I know, said something that stuck with me. After I was confirmed she gave me a big hug and earnestly said, "I hope you have this as a comfort for you throughout your life. I know I have."
College is a time of exploration in multiple areas of life, including spirituality. A lot of students utilize this time of life to expose themselves to new faiths, get a deeper understanding of the history of the faith they grew up in, or join clubs that practice spirituality in a multitude of ways. I experienced a lot of personal growth during college, but in terms of faith, religion and spirituality, it was not a priority for me. I certainly did not spend time building a relationship with God. While that is a focus for some college students, my time in college was focused on my personal life in the "here and now" rather than on something greater than or more abstract.
At the same time, I was aware of my spiritual stagnancy, even while it was happening. This was especially the case during my last year of college. I was talking to my mom about Mass and I said to her, "I honestly don't remember the last time I went to Mass ... I think it had to have been high school!" My mom looked at me completely shocked and quietly said, "Sarabella, we go to Mass every year on Easter and Christmas." I was amazed at myself for honestly forgetting the last five years of Mass I had attended, and for the first time a thought of trying to make religious faith more of a priority in my life popped into my head.
Turning to God, religion or spirituality for comfort, as my grandma had mentioned, has become more important recently. Currently, I picture God as someone you talk to and depend on during hard times. During college, I had that sort of relationship with the people in my life, rather than an abstract being. One person in particular I was always able to talk to and lean on in times of need. That person was available, an excellent listener, nonjudgmental, and made me feel validated, heard and comforted.
Since moving across the country to New York City, I don't have access to this relationship in the same way I did when I was in college, and I find myself yearning for that sort of support. Before, the idea of talking to the air about what I was going through and what I needed was the farthest thing I was going to try. But now, I feel curious and willing to try and find those qualities in God, rather than another human being.
I spent hundreds of hours in college getting to know myself. I had many moments that felt spiritual, where I would be deeply in touch with myself and how I was feeling. Usually there was a component of nature or music as well, like sitting in my childhood backyard at night in 75-degree weather, looking at the stars and breathing in fresh air. Or listening to the song "Oceans" by Hillsong United as a form of meditative prayer.
These moments were most often associated with joy and awe. These moments, and other tools I learned throughout college, such as writing gratitude lists or focusing on positive thoughts rather than negative thoughts, slowly became my spiritual practices. Still, they lacked an intentional connection with God. I was not ready for that relationship at the time. But being on my own, across the country from my family, and continuing the climb into adulthood, I am now craving the relational aspect of spirituality with God.
One of the four tenets of being a Good Shepherd Volunteer is spirituality. Once a week, my community members and I share an evening of intentionally focusing on spirituality. We have done yoga together; watched a documentary about a monk whose main source of prayer is cooking; and debated how there can be a god when there is so much suffering in life. We are also asked to spend time individually exploring our spirituality. One way to do that is through spiritual direction which is subsidized by the Good Shepherd Volunteer program.
When I first heard about the opportunity for spiritual direction, I knew I wanted to sign up. I had not explored my spirituality much at all, and I saw this opportunity as an interesting and personalized avenue to do so. However, I have now been participating in Good Shepherd Volunteers for four months and have not yet reached out to a director. I've been procrastinating. It feels like a big step!
Still, I am listening to this pull towards getting to know God. Since being a volunteer and seeing the many challenging and disheartening realities of our world each day at work, building a relationship with God to help me reckon with it all is feeling more and more appealing.
At the beginning of my volunteer year, I felt like a complete spiritual novice. In reflecting on my spiritual journey through this blog, I've realized spirituality has been more a part of my life than I originally realized. Though I may not have intentionally explored spirituality much in college, I am grateful for the space and support to do so now as a Good Shepherd volunteer.
[Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a therapeutic residence for adolescent girls in New York City.]