unsolicited advice: maintaining a “Catholic lifestyle” while abroad

This advice was kind of solicited. One of my dear friends who faithfully reads this blog asked me, on behalf of a friend of his, for my thoughts on maintaining a Catholic lifestyle abroad, where one might not have a good community or many friends with similar beliefs and values. (Both he and I have studied abroad before and knew exactly what she was talking about!) This is something I’ve thought about since my first experience abroad 3 years ago, and I was excited to write about it. 

One note: I found as I answered this question that I was speaking specifically to a study abroad experience in Europe, because that’s what I know. If anyone out there has thoughts about experiences in Asia, Africa, or South America, please do let us know!

Studying abroad is a transformative experience, and leaving home to study in another country brings with it many changes: a different city, likely a different language and culture, new friends, a new school, a new living environment… And with all these changes, one aspect of life that can get thrown into disarray is the spiritual. For many of us, our Catholic identity is linked to a particular community, a particular church, or a particular routine, and when those things change, our spiritual growth can suffer if we aren’t proactive. This is one of those times when we, as young Catholics, have to really own our faith.

Being a committed Catholic is not an accident of time or place, and if our faith is to be dynamic and real, it can’t be lived simply through routine or habit. Shaking things up by moving abroad is a real opportunity to be intentional about practicing your faith. I came up with a few lists of concrete actions that young Catholics can take to enrich and nourish their Catholic faith. The lists address two main issues that a young Catholic may encounter while abroad.

Issue One: Pressure to conform to the “study abroad” lifestyle of drunkenness, sex, and general debauchery. 

Many, many, many international students (American or otherwise) use their semester or year abroad as an opportunity to party as much as possible. While I am a huge fun of merriment and alcohol, a lot of the shenanigans that exchange students get up to while abroad don’t exactly conform to our Catholic morality because they lack the virtues of prudence and, most of all, temperance.

If your biggest problem as a Catholic exchange student is the pressure from others to engage in casual sex, excessive drinking, or drug use, I suggest one of 2 basic courses of action, each one challenging in a unique way:

1. If you are hanging out with people who are making you feel compelled to do things you know are wrong, find new friends.

2. Set standards for your own behavior, and challenge yourself to maintain them. I suggest setting a drink limit (or a cost limit!) for a night out, as well as staying away from casual sex and any drug use. Pray for the self-assuredness to be seen as the “strange” one, because you will be, especially if you have been going along with the party scene until now. However, if you’re confident enough in your own morals and decisions, hopefully others will respect them. (If not, see #1.) Be prepared to be appropriately self-deprecating or convicted depending on the situation and your personality. My go-to excuse when avoiding excessive drinking (I’ll admit I used it more when I was under 21) is my “all-encompassing vow of moderation in life.” I’ll have a few drinks and hang around, but that’s it, and I make sure people know it, maybe lightly making fun of myself for it but still standing my ground. This approach is challenging and, if you’re prone to peer pressure, risky.

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it's possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad ;)

A gratuitous photo of me drinking wine to demonstrate that it’s possible to balance alcohol and class while abroad 😉

Issue Two: The struggle to find sources of spiritual growth in a new and maybe less nurturing environment. 

I think this issue may be more in the spirit of the question.

Especially if you are coming from a lively and challenging university ministry at home, it will be a challenge to maintain the same level of “involvement” abroad. Everything about your life is new, and if your spiritual growth gets lost in the shuffle, you may find that this begins to affect your life in other ways, as well. There are two facets to this problem, and I want to discuss both of them, starting with the most important one.

First and foremost, this is a test of your personal relationship with Christ and your discipline in your faith. Don’t be tempted to blame your spiritual failings on anyone but yourself. If it’s important to you, and it seems like it is if you’re wondering about this topic in the first place, take it seriously. As with most spiritual challenges, living abroad is also a huge OPPORTUNITY to grow in your faith. I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve done during my time abroad that have helped me.

1. Spiritual reading. Studying abroad, you will probably have way more “free time” than you do during a normal semester. For me, this meant more time to read, a pleasure I don’t normally get to enjoy while I’m in school. Spiritual reading in particular can actually be a form of prayer. It gives you important things to think about, pray about, and evaluate; you have the time, and you might make some discoveries! Some suggestions for reading that will challenge and nourish you spiritually: 

  • Scripture
  • The lives of the saints: St. Augustine’s Confessions, Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux, The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena
  • Daily reflections of some sort. I’m subscribed to Fr. Robert Barron’s Lenten Reflections and they get sent right to my inbox!
  • Catholic philosophy: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis (Catholic-ish), Jacques Phillippe
  • Catholic blogs: Bad Catholic, Conversion Diaries, and Carrots for Michaelmas are 3 of my favorites. (This recent post from the author of Carrots is fantastic.)
  • And one random suggestion that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories: A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

2. Daily prayer. I will be the first to admit that I fail at this more often than not, whether I’m at home or abroad. However, during Advent I followed this Spiritual Boot Camp (my competitive nature helped me complete it even without any accountability partners, which I normally need). During Lent I am reading two of the Gospels (Mark and Luke, if you’re curious) and finishing the other two during Easter. I have had aspirations of reading a Psalm per day… I’ll find the discipline one of these days! Find a routine that works… maybe 10 minutes at the beginning or end of each day helps you to center your day around God? For short bursts of regular prayer, pick a saint whose feast day is coming up and say their novena. (I use this e-mail service for novenas and love it.) As Catholics we are blessed with so many different types of prayer, so I encourage you to find your favorites and use them!

3. Regular mass attendance. Find a beautiful church to attend Mass at on Sundays (at least!). In Europe, it is much easier to find a truly beautiful church than it is in the US. Let this inspire you to go to mass regularly, even if you go alone. I have encountered some… creative?… liturgy, which seems to be a trade-off with the beautiful churches. If this is going to bother you, I suggest checking out your city’s cathedral for your best bet at a traditional and beautiful service.

3a. Learn the Mass responses in the local language. This will help you immensely to participate in the Mass, even if you don’t always understand the readings or the homily.

3b. Look up and read the day’s readings beforehand so you can comprehend them better during Mass.

4. Other spiritual devotions. Once you’ve found a church or several that you enjoy, see what else they offer (Adoration, weekly Rosary during May or October, etc) and go to those if they interest you. You will likely be one of the only young people there, but that shouldn’t matter if the goal is to fortify your relationship and dialogue with God.

5. Faith-based travel. Go to Rome and pray a rosary in each Papal basilica, or something! (Or get a ticket to a Papal audience!!) Visit a Marian apparition site! In any given city, visit (and pray in) churches that you pass while sightseeing. Experiencing a new and deeply spiritual place, even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of traveling, can be good inspiration if you’re in a dry season.

Procession after mass at St. Paul's Basilica, my favorite of the churches we saw

Procession after Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome, April 2011

A second concern: finding community to encourage you on your journey. 

Ah, the hardest part. You’ve probably already experienced the wonderful challenge of making friends abroad, and this just adds a whole new dimension! Some thoughts:

1. Pray that God will send you the community you need. This sounds like a super holy roller answer, but trust in God’s providence is important in this regard. He will give you what you need, but not always what you want or what you’re used to. His answer might surprise you!

2. Find out if a Catholic community for university students exists at your school or in your city. In Germany, this will either be called the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (in the west) or the Katholische Studentengemeinde (in the east). I’m not sure about other countries, but something like this probably exists. Go to their meetings, prayer services, masses, dinners, game nights, or whatever it is they offer. In my personal experience (and I in no way speak for everyone or even anyone besides myself), Catholic communities abroad have been wonderful places to meet friendly people, both international and “native”. They offer different activities that are great for getting integrated into everyday life abroad. But they haven’t always been the source of spiritual growth or theological learning that I’ve found in youth groups and student centers in the US. However, if you are working on your own prayer life and spiritual discipline, as discussed above, this doesn’t have to be a huge deal… Maybe you can make a positive change there, or you can at least learn more about the state of the young church in another country!

3. I may be biased because I’m a Schoenstatter (member of the universal Schoenstatt movement), but if you are lucky enough to be in a city with a Schoenstatt shrine or some other Catholic pilgrimage site or spiritual group, check it out. Maybe you’ll meet some nice people.

4. Embrace simple “evangelization.” Don’t be shy mentioning your faith or church when talking to others. This can be hard in Europe because far fewer people are religious than in America, so you might get some funny looks. (Then again, followers of Christ have suffered worse!) I’m not suggesting standing on street corners and telling people about Jesus… It’s as simple as answering honestly when someone asks where you’re going as you’re headed to Mass. When I met my friend Felicitas, she asked how I had tried meeting friends in Dresden. Despite my instinct to downplay the whole religious thing, I said, “Well, I’m Catholic, so I’ve gone by the Catholic center a few times and met some people.” I fully expected her to say “Hmm, well, that’s not really my thing.” but instead, I was met with  “Wow! I’m Catholic, too! Can I come with you sometime?” Now, we attend KSG functions, Mass, and adoration together and it’s a huge blessing!

5. Especially if none of the above have worked, but even if they have: Stay in touch with a friend from home who can be your accountability partner if you’re worried about lapsing in a particular area. Check up on each other: have you been going to Mass? Reading Scripture? Maybe you can agree to pray a novena together or make a “Mass date” for a certain day of the week, since the Eucharist unites the body of Christ around the world every time it’s celebrated!

6. If you are feeling lonely or abandoned because none of your efforts to find community have worked the way you had imagined, Christ is waiting to remind you that He is your truest friend, companion, and confidant. When you are discouraged, He is there to bolster your confidence. When you need someone to listen to your cares, thoughts, and worries, He will. Community is wonderful and the Church is a beautiful gift from God, but no human community can replace your relationship with your Heavenly Father. This is hard to grasp sometimes, especially when you are seeking human companionship and affirmation, which is natural. But the fact that Christ doesn’t stray from your side can be immensely comforting. The companionship you find in Him when all else fails will be the key to your spiritual growth now and for the rest of your life.

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

A reminder of His love for us on a hike in the Black Forest, Spring 2011

Did I miss something? If you have thoughts, feel free to comment below… and please, if you think someone you know could benefit from this advice, share it with them!

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unsolicited advice: relocating after college

Part two in my gratuitous “advice” series, in which I discuss what it’s like to “start over” in a new city as a young adult, and evaluate different ways to approach the transition! I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too, especially since many of you are more knowledgeable than I!

I am a young twenty-something (are we tired of this term? Not yet? Okay, then.) who graduated from college last year, and I am in the midst of a few post-graduation changes. One of the biggest anxiety-inducing adjustment post-college for many grads, including myself, is the challenge of moving to a new city! In my experience, it’s not so much the new city that’s the challenge, but rather the interesting phenomenon of going from having lots of friends, and a familiar social situation, to potentially having none.

For most people, going to college is the first taste of this kind of complete social upheaval. But I went to school at the “obvious” (yet still competitive and prestigious, mind you) choice, an in-state public university where 30 of my high school classmates also enrolled. I was also lucky enough to live with a high school friend for all four years! So moving away after college is an even bigger adjustment, especially given that many of my best college friends are still living near where we went to school, and I find myself living quite far away and quite on my own.

I had a relocation “trial run” when I studied abroad during college, so I was able to learn a few of the hardest lessons of young adulthood while I still had the safety net of my familiar Forty Acres to fall back on. Now that I’ve relocated to Dresden, and am anticipating a move to Madison later this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what in particular I’ve found challenging, as well as what has been the most rewarding, about striking out on my own in a new place!

So without further ado, here is some unsolicited advice from my own trial and error! 

Challenge 1: Maintaining a sense of self in a new place. 

It can be tempting to throw “the old you” out the window as soon as you land in a new city. But as far as I’m concerned, dealing with an identity crisis on top of all the changes that are about to happen just sounds like a recipe for disaster. Your life story–your family, personality, preferences, strengths, weaknesses–have a place in your new home, too! For me, it has been really important that I continue to place the same emphasis on my faith as I did at home.  Going to Mass every week has been a huge anchor for me… no matter what other crazy changes are going on in my life, the Church is a constant, week in and week out. I can imagine that, if I were a runner or a soccer player, continuing to participate in that aspect of my life in a new place would also be an important stabilizer in a time of instability.

Challenge 2: Structuring your life is harder when your surroundings are unfamiliar.

But it might be the most important thing you can do. Without structure, your free time quickly becomes a black hole of watching Netflix and eating chocolate. (That’s a universal phenomenon, right? No?) For me, this problem is multi-faceted.

A new location can mess up your day-to-day life simply because you don’t know where things are. For instance, it was not a big deal in college if I was out for the day and hadn’t packed a lunch or cooked anything at home, because I knew all the best places to get a cheap/healthy/on-the-go meal. I don’t necessarily know that yet for any given place in my new city. Even after several months here, I find myself running back and forth and wasting a lot of time because I don’t know the best or most convenient place to eat, make copies, get internet access, etc.

The beginning of your time in a new city actually provides a solution to this exact problem, though, because you have a tourist agenda for the first few weeks or months. Make it your job to see all the sights your city has to offer, even if you’re doing some of it alone. It will give you something to do, and at the same time you’ll become more familiar with your new city. Make it your assignment to learn as much as you can about the neighborhoods where you spend most of your time. Find out whether the café near the university has free wifi, and scope out the scene: would it be weird if you camped out there with your laptop for a few hours to get some work done? Try out the take-out restaurants… are they worth a repeat visit?

Once you have some idea about the landscape of your daily existence, establish a routine for yourself. What day should you go for a morning run? There’s a sushi special down the street on Wednesday evenings, so maybe that could be a ritual. The café has longer hours on week nights, so that could be a potential productivity area after work. Creating a routine is also helpful when it comes to scheduling social events, and that’s important because…

Challenge 3: It takes a long time to build a support group of friends.

This is really the hardest part, in my experience. I have had the added burden of a language/cultural barrier both times I’ve “moved away,” but based on the experiences of friends within the U.S., making friends is the hardest part of post-college life in general, especially after moving somewhere new. I learned from my mistake in Freiburg and decided not to live alone in Dresden, which has been a huge blessing. But even with a fantastic roommate whose friends have also kind of adopted me, it has been difficult to establish friendships. I’m not a full-time student with a cohort of classmates, and it’s hard to break into pre-established social circles. Not everyone is always going to be as invested as you are in making friends, and it’s rough sometimes when you’re open to being buddies with someone and they clearly aren’t interested (no matter what language you happen to be speaking).

In my understanding, there are two groups of people you want to be looking for: like-minded people, and people in a similar situation to you. Like-minded people will have similar interests to you, and as I mentioned in Challenge 1, you have to know what your interests are before you can find them! I’ve had success finding like-minded people at church groups, and have also heard that sports classes are great for this (I’m finally taking my own advice next semester and taking a sports class!). Establishing that you and your new acquaintances have something in common is not only a gateway to meeting them in the first place, but also provides conversation topics and possible activities to do together once you become friends!

Finding people who have a similar situation to you, whatever that may mean, is important because you will have a mutual understanding right away. For instance, find an alumni association from your University, or a bar that shows your hometown’s football team’s games, or reach out to the other new coworker who recently moved to town. This time around, it’s been much easier for me to befriend other international students and young people living in Dresden: they’re away from home, I’m away from home, we’re all trying to get by with our sorry German skills… instant connection! Felicitas and I got close really quickly because we are both dealing with the limbo state of DAAD-scholarship life. I’ve also found that the Germans who are most willing to make the extra effort with new people from abroad are those who have studied abroad themselves. They know what it’s like!

One important thing is to be open and to put yourself in situations where you will be able to meet people. This is the hardest thing for an introvert like me (and it’s especially hard when I’m not speaking my native language), but if you are confident enough to brave a new situation, you might be lucky enough to meet kind, generous people who are willing to befriend you!

Of course, sometimes it’s not so easy, and like I mentioned above, sometimes other people just aren’t willing to put forth the effort to become friends. That sucks; it does. But part of being an adult is realizing that maybe not everyone wants to be your friend, and you shouldn’t waste your time on those people anymore. Concentrate your dazzling conversational skills on somebody who seems friendly! (Obviously, I am not the master of any of this advice yet, but we’re in this together! Let’s encourage each other, young adults of the internet!)

Of course, the last key element is time (and patience!). You probably didn’t become best friends with your best friends the first time you met them; building relationships is a long process! Be patient with it. (Again, hard advice! I’m sorry!)

Challenge 4: Incorporating your old life into your new one. 

I suppose this goes along with #1. Just because you’re living in a new city and/or country doesn’t mean that you leave the rest of your life behind or forget everyone who’s ever been important to you. However, the challenge is that you can’t just live a carbon copy of your “old life” in a new city by constantly talking to your college friends or trying to re-live the glory days.

I haven’t fully figured out how to balance the two, and living abroad has its own challenges, but it helps when your friends and family are invested in you, and you are invested in them. I love hearing from my friends and finding out what exciting things the’ve been up to! I am a fan of sporadic Skype dates with my friends, every month or 2, to catch up. I’ve also loved sending postcards when I travel. I would also love to add a pen pal or two.

Sending mail doesn’t have the instant gratification of online communication, which also means it isn’t as all-consuming. Taking the time to write a nice letter to a friend or family member, and then waiting for their reply, is a communication mode that is very forgiving of the fact that you are busy living your new life!

I haven’t fully figured out how to do this, because it’s a total work in progress. Really, isn’t the integration of relationships, places, and experience the work of an entire lifetime? We have lots of time to practice and hopefully eventually get it right.

Any more advice that I missed? I don’t know what it’s like to enter the workforce after college, so I don’t quite have that perspective… an

#anniesmove

Well, the next chapter of my Germany adventure is upon us! I’ve been here for 4 whole weeks already, and yesterday I moved into my very own apartment which I share with my new roommate, Agnes!

This is me in front of one of the Elbe Castles on the last day with my host family! This is my new favorite outfit, which is the main reason why I'm including this off-topic picture.

This is me in front of one of the Elbe Castles on the last day with my host family! This is my new favorite outfit, which is the main reason why I’m including this off-topic picture.

We’re on the 9th floor, and we have some pretty awesome views. From my room, I can see the tower from a church a few blocks over, which is very stately and 20th century-looking. I like it a lot, except for two facts: one, it faces east, which means I get a lot of sun in the morning (which will be fun come May when the sun rises at 5 am!); and two, apparently the church bells ring at 7 AM. We’ll have to hope that today was somehow unique and that this isn’t a daily occurrence. (I don’t have a picture of my view right now because the sun was shining right at me when I tried to take one.)

However, here is our view from the balcony, on the opposite side of the building, from which we can see this beautiful Orthodox church!

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I thought I’d give y’all a little tour! Let’s go!

Ok. So when you walk into the entryway, you immediately get a little American vibe:

Cactus

Cactus

Homage to New York

Homage to New York

My room is very cozy: red curtains, several homey light fixtures, lots of bookshelves… it’s very nice. I like it so far.

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I am, once again, sleeping in a loft bed, as I did for about two years in college. Every time I have a loft, I tell myself I’ll never do it again because it’s so “inconvenient” and “dangerously near the ceiling fan” and “unstable” (thanks to a faulty lofting kit in San Jac… thanks UT Housing). But every time, I end up in another loft bed. But it’s not terrible. It’s like having your own fort.

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This lovely inscription next to my bed means, according to Google Translate, "The early bird can kiss my ass." A good refrain for me to know the next time those dang church bells wake me up!

This lovely inscription next to my bed means, according to Google Translate, “The early bird can kiss my ass.” A good refrain for me to know the next time those dang church bells wake me up!

This time, there is an awesome couch underneath the loft, which is a definite plus. Check out this little alcove!

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This corner unit is where I would put my TV if I had one, but since I don’t, I figured it would make a perfectly acceptable Home Shrine.

Roses provided by my wonderful boyfriend on our anniversary (the day before I moved in!)

Roses provided by my wonderful boyfriend on our anniversary (the day before I moved in!)

I won’t lie, one of the MAJOR perks of finding an actual roommate this time (besides the obvious “not being totally alone every day”) is that the apartment was already adorably furnished before I got here! The common spaces are so cute!

First, we have our ample seating space at the dining room table/breakfast nook/whatever you’d call this:

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Even more comfy seating in the living room area:

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And a little kitchen that does not photograph well, but alas:

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Yes, that is a washing machine in the kitchen. (But at least we have one in the apartment! Oh, Europe.)

I’m just settling in (in the midst of trying to get my classes settled… I’d had just enough time to forget just how crazy ridiculous the German university system is, and now I’m having to learn all over again!), but I am enjoying the apartment life so far!

As a reward for reading this whole post, here: have an awesome video about people named Annie moving. #sixseasonsandamovie