Is God real? For some people, the answer is instinctive. They answer in absolute terms, one way or the other. But there are those who, upon reflection, may lean in different directions at different points in their lives, and who may never be able to respond with absolute certainty.
I fall into the second category. So when I began my freshman year at a Jesuit high school after attending public schools all my life, I felt pressured to make a snap judgment. It seemed that saying, “I don’t know,” simply was not acceptable at a school full of impassioned individuals. It seemed like an admission of failure or weakness.
Because I prefer objectivity—I like having proof and logic to support what I believe—I was frustrated that I could not find any obvious physical example of God’s presence. I had never experienced a miracle; I had never felt an intimate connection to God. No, I decided, God doesn’t exist. I was content to remain silent during class discussions, because if I was ever pressed, I couldn’t defend my uncertainty. So rather than let myself get embarrassed or backed into a corner, I let others control the conversation. After all, this was not something to which I had given much thought.
During my junior year, however, I felt as if I had hit rock bottom. At the beginning of the school year, I was driving four of my friends and we were in a bad accident. I am thankful that no one was injured, but our family car was completely totaled. Given that my parents were finishing putting their fourth child through a Catholic high school and had just finished paying for a third college tuition, the timing was less than perfect. I felt an incredible amount of guilt throughout the whole situation, not only for the burden I had put upon my parents but also for stupidly endangering my friends. It was my responsibility as the driver to keep everyone safe, and one stupid mistake had put all that at risk.
Not long after that, I had a series of terrible arguments with my mom. It would start with little quips back and forth and escalate from there. Neither of us was proud of it, but we could not simply forget what the other had said. My friends, the car, my mom—it was all weighing on me at once, and I sunk lower emotionally and spiritually than I can ever remember being. I could not even begin to sort through everything I was feeling: guilt, anger, shame, helplessness. I just tried waiting it out, thinking I would get over it eventually.
In God’s Presence
When I went on our school’s junior retreat, I thought I was completing a graduation requirement more than anything else. But one activity on the retreat involved acknowledging the people who bring the light of Christ into our lives and the ways in which we shut out that light. I immediately thought of my family. They had so easily forgiven me for what had happened that I could not even remember what we fought about. Later that night, when we were offered reconciliation, I took advantage of this opportunity and felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders.
I could not explain right then the source of this immense relief, but I came to realize that it was a result of God’s grace. I was increasingly aware of my own dependence on the God whose existence I had doubted. When I felt I could not handle everything on my own, I found myself turning toward God.
At the end of my junior year, I chose to go on a four-day Kairos retreat. In the course of it, I came to realize what Thomas Merton meant when he said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” But most important, I gained a more profound understanding of God’s activity in our lives; I found the “proof” of God that I yearned for in my freshman year. Slowly, I began to see God’s presence in all things, like a smile from a stranger, and not just in miraculous events.
Over that summer, I worked on building a stronger foundation for my faith. I attended weekly Mass for the first time since middle school, and in October I went on another retreat, this time to deepen my prayer life. It was a two-and-a-half-day silent retreat, which took me out of all the commotion of school and college applications and athletics and allowed me a few minutes to breathe. I learned how to simply allow myself to feel God’s presence, taking time to listen to him rather than constantly talk at him. Since then, I have found it difficult to keep my prayer consistent. When things are going really well, it is easy to neglect my prayer, and when I hit a rough patch, I feel ashamed to face him. But when I make a concerted effort to pray, expressing gratitude for my blessings or admitting weakness in a request for help, I always feel more at peace, more at ease with who I am.
Leading Through Christ
In February of my senior year I applied and was accepted to lead a Kairos retreat. In working with my teammates to prepare for the retreat, I was truly challenged to put my faith into practice. We tried to follow Pope Francis’ example of servant leadership, putting our personal interests aside in order to lead our classmates with empathy and compassion. When my teammates and I found ourselves struggling, we knew instinctively to support each other.
Leading this retreat and living with my team in a Christian community gave me new confidence and taught me how to stand up for my faith and my ideals. I tend to be much more comfortable remaining quiet as a scene plays out around me, and I am definitely not comfortable with speaking out or going against the crowd. But I could see that it is sometimes better to make my opinions heard than to remain passive. And often, people respect me more for it.
When I am with my senior class, whose members I have come to know and love over the past four years, it is easy to speak out against rumors and bullying. But I now face a new challenge in my faith as I try to carry those same ideals to college. I face the same issues I did when leading Kairos: remaining steady when confronted with challenges to my faith. My faith and my commitment to being a woman for others will continue to be tested, but I feel that I am well prepared for the challenge. Reflecting on the past year, I know that I can live a life of faith and thrive in a largely non-Catholic student body.
Now I can look back on my time in high school and recognize all God has given me. Even through the obstacles and difficulties, I know that God has given me the strength to fight on. And more than that, my Jesuit education has taught me the importance of centering my life around my faith. As I begin to discern my vocation, I am committed to serve God and others in whatever I do. I feel ready to move on to college, where I don’t have required theology courses, but where I feel I can transition into an adult faith. But most important, I have begun my college experience with one conviction in mind: God is very real.