Tomorrow marks three weeks since I’ve been home from Italy. One more week and I’ll have been back in the states the same amount of time I was gone. It almost makes my stomach hurt to think about how fast that went. When I was in the midst of my trip, I kept reminding myself that when it was over, I’d feel like it had lasted only days instead of weeks. So far, that’s absolutely true.
There’s so much about this trip that I still can’t wrap my brain around. I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe it’s over. I felt, at the time, that I was constantly taking pictures, constantly posting about it on social media, constantly making mental notes to share with friends and family when I got back – but now that I’m home, it feels like I have so little to really do it any justice.
I never intended for this trip to be four weeks of back-to-back-to-back travel, nor did I necessarily have a checklist of places I wanted to see or things I wanted to do. What I was really looking for was retreat, and that’s what I got. I thought I’d read a lot, and I did. I thought I’d write a lot, and I did. I anticipated I’d post on my blog much more often, but my brain had other plans, and thoughts wandered elsewhere, so I let them. Much of my time was spent in prayer and reflection. This was what I wanted.
The four weeks I was away felt like such a dramatic pause, at times, that it almost made me anxious. I sometimes found myself feeling antsy, thinking, “I should be doing something. I should be working. I should be job hunting. I should be at home, cleaning or spending time with my family or helping with projects around the house. I should be DOING something.” But in these moments, I tried to remind myself that there’s something to be said for simply “being.” There’s something to be said for moments of rest, and moments dedicated to prayer, and time spent in contemplation with God. After all, Saints have done it. Jesus did too.
In the months leading up to my trip, I prayed daily that it would be purposeful. I prayed that I’d use my time well and that I’d benefit from the time spent away. Truthfully, I gave myself literally down to the minute I was on the plane to decide that I shouldn’t go. At no point did I take a “no turning back now” mentality; I told myself all summer, and into the fall, that if Election Day came and went and I felt it was wrong to leave home, regardless of the reason, I wouldn’t go. But obviously, I did. And here we are.
If I’m sure of anything, it’s that I highly recommend traveling alone, and I plan to do it again. The week before Thanksgiving, I wrote that visiting these places by myself was lonely in some moments, mostly because I wished I had someone to share these experiences with. At the same time, though, traveling alone is so remarkable because it is so deeply personal. And when I’m asked about my trip, this is ALWAYS my initial response (although I don’t usually say it out loud): it was deeply, deeply personal.
Everything comes to the surface when you’re alone for that amount of time. Fears, anxieties, dreams, “the deepest desires of your heart” (as my mom calls them) break free from the loud noise of our busy lives of work and relationships and home life. This wasn’t something I anticipated. It reminds me of the phrase that priests sometimes use at mass – during Prayers of the Faithful, they’ll say, “for the intentions we hold in the quiet of our hearts.” I think that’s the space I found in traveling alone. In certain moments, I felt as though I tripped and fell and landed face first in the “quiet” of my own heart.
I’m also sure that we need to be better at acknowledging the seemingly-purposeless desires (like a month-long trip to Rome alone) that God places on our hearts. I’ve wanted this trip for years – since I was a freshman in college, at least. I’m not sure that I have anything tangible to point to and say, “look what came from this.” But the thought of the entire experience brings tears to my eyes, because I’m so immensely grateful I got it and am so sad it’s already over. That has to count for something.
I was listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz’s podcast during my run tonight, and at one point, he was saying that God wills for us to be fascinated. It seems silly, but he gave the example of an armadillo. Armadillos serve virtually no real purpose – in fact, they’re kind of ridiculous animals. But if you consider an armadillo as a part of God’s creation, they are absolutely fascinating. Everything, he said, should be this fascinating to us.
Immediately, I thought of my time in Rome. If I had to pin a word on the reason I wanted to go, “curiosity” probably comes close. I was curious about what I might see, what I might think, how it all might make me feel, what I might take from it – and, truth be told, prior to leaving, a small piece of me felt a little bit guilty about that. Is curiosity reason enough to spend time and money on this? I wasn’t necessarily confident before I left that the answer to that question was yes.
But I’ve had 3 weeks to think about it and now, my answer is resounding: yes, yes, yes. It was so worth it. Every minute away, every dollar spent, every twinge of loneliness. Every time I got lost, every calorie I consumed (mostly via pizza and wine), every line I stood in, every selfie stick vendor I denied (all but one) – I’d do it again a million times over, exactly the same way. Coming home, I feel peaceful, joyful, clear-headed, optimistic, hopeful, and so, so grateful.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta said, “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
I’ve told numerous people that I’m convinced I’ll reap the benefits of that time alone in Italy for a while to come, and in ways I probably can’t anticipate, even now. I don’t have many exciting stories to share, nor did I meet many people worth mentioning here, but I believe my faith is a little bit changed. Prayers will materialize, questions will be answered, and I’ll continue to look back on that time as something so deeply personal – time I spent alone with God, in the quiet of my heart.