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: studying in Germany

A few months ago, a friend from college sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would have any advice for a classmate of hers who wanted to study abroad in Germany.  As a fairly opinionated person who feels strongly about study abroad experiences, especially in Germany, I was able to come up with a good number of things that I wish I had known before I first came to Germany, as well as things I’ve learned since I’ve been here that I think would be helpful for someone in the planning stages.

So I’m making my foray into the scary world of online advice blogging! (I do have a few similar posts in the queue, so keep an eye out for those!) I know no one asked, but that’s why it’s called “unsolicited”! Here is a list of things that you should know if you want to live in Germany.

I wrote this list for a student wanting to study abroad, but many items on this list could apply to young adults wanting to get a degree at a German university or work in Germany for a short or long duration, as well!

1. Learn German. Do you already know German? Good. In the time between now and when you set foot on German soil, do everything you can to get more exposure to the language. Read an article or two from Der Spiegel every week. Take or audit a German class at school. Watch a German TV show! (I’ve never seen it, but Türkisch für Anfänger always gets good reviews!)

Wait, what’s that? You don’t know German? Well, there’s no better time to start than right now. I know that plenty of people study abroad with no knowledge of the local language, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, you can get by with English in Germany, but do you really want to just get by during your time abroad? It’s much easier to establish friendships with Germans if you make an effort to learn some German… not to mention being able to orient yourself in your host city and as you travel around. If you learn as much as you can before you leave and keep an open mind during your time there, your language abilities will improve drastically… I know several people who went to Germany with a very limited grasp of the language, and after a year or so of living and working there, were able to converse quite easily! It is possible!

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Here, I’ll help you get started

2. Go for a year or longer! My biggest regret about my semester in Germany during the summer of 2011 was that it was only one semester! I know that a year abroad sounds like a really long time, especially if the norm at your school is to go abroad for 6 weeks, if that (like it was at mine). But a year goes by quicker than you’d expect (especially if you plan to travel), and one semester is barely any time at all to get adjusted to a new country, language, school, city, and culture, not to mention to make friends!

If a year would not be possible for whatever reason, go for as long as possible. Plan to arrive as soon as possible before the semester begins, and stay as long as possible after it ends. Many programs offer a language course before the semester begins (which would help with #1!), which also provides time to get acclimated to the city and maybe meet some people!

liebe dich

3. Location, location, location. Spend some time deciding where exactly in Germany you want to go, because the city you live in will obviously influence your experience greatly. The different cities and regions in Germany are quite distinct. As you consider, pay particular attention to the size of the city in question, and also whether it is in (former) East Germany or West Germany.

Even 20+ years after Germany’s reunification, there are still some lingering differences between east and west, particularly where language is concerned. In the west, it is much more likely that any given person on the street or in a shop (especially of the older generation) will be able to speak English. If you aren’t yet fluent in German, that could be helpful. However, if you’re trying to BECOME fluent, the atmosphere in the east might be helpful… people may be less likely to automatically switch to English once they hear your accent!

If you will be staying for a year or longer, as I advised you above, choose a larger city as opposed to a small one (or a small city with easy access to a large city). That way, there will be more to explore during your time there. Also, larger cities generally have easy access to smaller outlying towns and attractions and good public transit to get you there.

Basically, do your research to find out whether the city you’re interested in has everything you’re looking for. A few odd tips: living near a border gives you easy access to international travel; living in Berlin will give you an exciting and eclectic, though debatably “un-German” experience; it is really hard to find an apartment in most cities with universities, and Munich is notoriously expensive.

4. Go as an exchange student. (Or directly enroll in a graduate program. Or get a job working with Germans.) Integrate yourself into society!!! I know for some students studying abroad, a university-affiliate or professor-led program is necessary to both study abroad and graduate on time, but if at all possible, do a direct exchange! It will require some proactivity on your part, because all your classes/travel won’t be planned for you, you won’t have a ready-made community of fellow American students, and you’ll probably have to deal with some university bureaucracy, but you will have a more authentic and rewarding experience (and for pretentious folk like me, that’s what it’s all about 😉 ).

5. Be proactive about your living situation. I lived in a terrible student dorm in Freiburg because that’s what I was assigned. However, I have a feeling that if I’d searched around a little more before committing to student housing, I could have found a better option. So before I moved to Dresden, I looked on all the WG websites to find an apartment and roommate. Wohngemeinschafte/living communities are like shared apartments among young people in Germany, and there are plenty of websites to locate people who need to sublet their room. I used wggesucht.de. My roommate, Agnes, is awesome, and living with a German peer has really helped me practice my language skills on a daily basis, make a few friends, and have a nice atmosphere at home rather than the gross, utilitarian dorm of days past 😉

6. Buy a bike. Having a bike gives you flexibility of transportation and allows you to get places quicker so you can do more, plus it’s very scenic and beautiful to ride around during the summer and experience your new city from that vantage point! Hypocrite alert because I don’t have a bike in Dresden (but I might still buy one). This was the most important thing I ever did in Freiburg, though, because I lived far from school and the center of town, and all of my friends had bikes, so if I ever wanted to do something with them, I could just tag along instead of having to meet them somewhere using public transit. Here, the city is big enough that public transit is necessary to get to certain parts of town, and I live within walking distance of most places I go on a daily basis, so I haven’t NEEDED one, but I’m still on the look-out for an affordable used bike, because I love biking!

7. Make German friends. This will help with #1, for sure! It will also help to integrate you into life in Germany. Making friends familiar with your city/region (and fluent in German) is also incredibly helpful as you figure everything out for yourself. It is, in my experience, more difficult to make friends with Germans than to stick in a group with the other Americans/international students (and there is merit to making friends with those people, as well). Two ways I’ve found it helpful to meet people: getting involved at church and taking part in extracurriculars. I’m Catholic, and I’ve been able to meet nice, generous, friendly people at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (KHG) in Freiburg and the Katholische Studentengemeinde (KSG) in Dresden. The Protestant groups are called EHG/ESG. And this semester I am finally taking my own advice about the sports/extracurricular activities tactic by taking a dance class! I love dancing and thoroughly enjoyed my classes at UT, so I figured I’d keep it up and meet some people along the way.

8. Travel! Self explanatory. Obviously the requisite trips to London/Paris/Milan/whatever are awesome, and you should go for it, but I also recommend day trips in your area and really getting to know your particular region in Germany, as well, because they’re all very distinct and it will cultivate a real feeling of regional identity, which I quite enjoy 🙂

9. Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. Every person’s time abroad will be unique, so don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that your experience is “worse” because you can see on Facebook that your high school friend has visited more cities than you have. Make the most of YOUR experience… explore the areas around where you’re living, go to social outings, do something new every week, take pictures. Focus on making your memories, not glancing at someone else’s to compare.

10. Find a “life abroad” confidant. For those times when it feels like living abroad is the hardest thing you’ve ever done and no one will ever understand you. Obviously parents are wonderful and significant others are great, but if they’ve never studied or lived abroad, they won’t totally understand what you’re gong through. If you keep in touch with a buddy who has had a similar experience, they will be able to affirm that the loneliness, anxiety, or whatever it is you might be feeling is totally normal, and hopefully they will encourage you to power through the tough parts so you can experience the wonder of living abroad! I know this sounds like the ultimate First World Problem but the truth is that it’s tough to live in another language in a new city with new experiences without an outlet for your frustrations or a sounding board to figure your stuff out. (This person should also be able to give you a good reality check and/or swift kick in the behind if you are being unreasonable 😉 ) Overall, living/studying abroad is a POSITIVE, life-affirming, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you should share those moments with your buddy as well, and meet up once you get back to cook foods you miss from abroad, go on bike rides together, and commiserate about reverse culture shock 🙂

Finally, an outlet for my many opinions 😉 If you are itching to study in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe/the world, I hope I’ve encouraged you at least a little bit!

To my fellow study abroad alumni: is there anything I missed?? Anything you disagree with?