Unlike most of my classmates, what I looked forward to most about being on campus was not seeking out the parties. It wasn’t a desire for alcohol or all the other “benefits” of this newly discovered independence.
No, I wanted to learn, and that really meant learning more about my faith. I had a solid foundation of what I believed as a Catholic, but it was still very much just absorbing what I had been taught and taking things at face value instead of understanding things for myself.
I was eager to join the campus ministry program because I was sure this would be a great opportunity to meet people. In South Carolina, Catholics make up a small percentage of the population, so it can often feel like you’re the only one. What I didn’t expect, though, was an established ecumenical group on campus.
At first glance there only seemed to be PACT (Presbyterians And Catholics Together), which was led by a Catholic priest and a female Presbyterian minister. But after a while there were events just for Catholics, offered through a Newman club.
PACT was great for offering a weekly meal near campus and gathering with others for prayer and to learn about things happening in the community along with events on campus. It just wasn’t as hard-hitting as I was hoping for.
The group was meant more for socializing than study. I understand why. Most students are more willing to carve out time for socializing and mental breaks than to add more reading and studying to their schedule. Really, if you want to join a group you typically don’t want to add additional work to your to-do list.
I was interested in listening but still had trouble making verbal contributions. I needed the socializing practice, especially in a more controlled environment, but I didn’t take full advantage of it.
The Newman Club did offer multiple sessions on campus at a residence hall where professors and other church members from the community led discussions of various topics. These conflicted with my schedule, though, since I had a class on Monday nights.
Eventually a bible study was offered. We met off campus for about an hour, splitting time between eating lunch and learning. Maybe two or three other students joined in. I could handle this small group and was more inclined to share observations and ask questions.
Start of term retreats
The biggest highlight was an overnight retreat at the start of each semester. The nearby church had property that included a retreat house so we slept there. It may have been less than five minutes from campus, but it was still a welcome respite from routine and a chance to step away.
We gathered for dinner Friday night. As you arrived you were invited to claim a bed, unload your belongings and help prepare for the meal. It was among the first times I remember being asked to chop vegetables for a salad. I don’t mean to say I never had salad before, only that mom handled those preparations. So I was being trusted to use a knife! Vegetables and only vegetables made it into the bowl, thank you very much!
In another room, there was a stack of notebooks of various shapes and sizes. We were invited to take one to keep as a journal. Naturally I grabbed the actual college rule notebook rather than a novelty 5×7 inch notepad. As we waited for the evening to get started, we could socialize or take the time to answer some journal prompts.
Journal prompts in school mostly focused on generating responses to things we had read. Perhaps pretending we were a particular character and reflecting on how we would respond in a similar situation. But this was the first time I was asked to use writing as a means of prayer and dialoguing with God.
So equipped with the notebook and the prompts, I took a seat on the porch away from others and reflected. I allowed a lot of thoughts to spill out on the pages, easily filling up three full pages to answer four questions.
1. Who are the most important people (relationships) in my life? What do I want to say to them?
2. What are the important God experiences in your life? (What are the experiences that tell you that God is alive?)
3. What do you want to say to God at this time?
4. What do you think God is saying to you at this time?
(NOTE: If you decide to reflect on these questions, I’d love to hear about it if you’re open to sharing. You can email me at email@example.com.)
Opening up is scary
I think it was tough to share in the beginning, but over time as I learned to trust those in the group it got easier. My observations are usually much different from others and there’s a fear of being rejected or ridiculed because of it. I think that difference comes from turning the idea over in my head more before sharing, of thinking through various connections. I problem solve internally whereas many others pose a less polished idea for group discussion. I don’t mean less polished in a bad way. They are just different approaches. It’s being an extrovert vs. introvert and needing to process information internally or externally.
Not that I understood the distinction as a college student. I often wondered why people didn’t have a bit more self-control, why they didn’t take time to think things through more before blurting out something. Of course, I think I got annoyed by this behavior simply because it was something I struggled with. I longed for more freedom in sharing instead of feeling compelled to have a complete thought before throwing it out to the group.
Beginning of college journaling
As happens a lot in life, I didn’t quite get everything out of the campus ministry program that I hoped to gain. Being given the journal, though, was the beginning of more serious journal writing. Sure I had reflected on things for class in the past and responded to journal prompts. Yes, I’d taken plenty of opportunities to write on my own, but in a very special way I turned more inward in college.
Instead of sharing more freely with roommates and friends, I wrote in journals. It was very natural to have an internal dialogue constantly streaming through my mind. Instead of vocalizing it, I wrote it out. Sometimes these thoughts were a stream of consciousness of what happened that day. Sometimes it flowed out like a prayer. Sometimes I addressed specific people when I wrote, in an unsent letter kind of way.
And yet somehow I still didn’t see writing as my thing, a strength or my refuge. It was just something I did.
Diving into Scripture
As I tried to more concretely develop a prayer life, that meant reading my Bible more often. And a lot of the Old Testament seemed so out reach and unrelatable. So, when I came across a verse that grabbed my attention or was in language that made it easier to understand, I copied it into my journal. The Psalms especially seemed hit or miss with being easy to follow. Here are a few verses that at one point I found worth writing down.
But you, Lord, are a shield around me; my glory, you keep my head high. Psalm 3:4
Hear my words, O Lord; Listen to my sighing. Hear my cry for help, my king, my God; To you I pray, O Lord; at dawn you will hear my cry; at dawn I will plead before you and wait. Psalm 5:2-4
I am wearied with sighing; all night long tears drench my bed; my couch is soaked with weeping. My eyes are dimmed with sorrow, worn out because of all my foes. Psalm 6:7-8
Lord my God, in you I take refuge; rescue me; save me from all who pursue me. Psalm 7:2
A shield before me is God who saves the honest heart. Psalm 7:11
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple. Psalm 19:8