(The idea for the framing of this World Youth Day blog came from an entry in Emily Wilson’s scriptural devotional book for women. I read the reflection called “I Choose the Sky” the day after I returned from WYD).
This was one of the first pictures I took of the pilgrimage. We had arrived in Zakopane around 2:30 AM after a long journey from the Berlin, Germany airport. I was not expecting this view as we woke up that morning. I marveled at my surroundings that day. How beautiful the sunrise was on the horizon and the gorgeous sunset at the end of the day. Why don’t I pay attention to these small things in my everyday life? It’s the same sun in Rochester, MN as it is in Zakopane, Poland. When the sun is rising in the morning I’m heading off to work, distracted by what lies ahead for the day. In the evenings at sunset I’m “busy” with various activities that occupy my evenings. Those moments are happening around me even when I don’t realize it. That’s the first lesson of this pilgrimage: take advantage of the little moments. The sunrise, the sunset, the opportunity to laugh, the ability to smile. I choose the sky even when my life is trying to pull me in every other direction.
At Our Lady of Czestochowa, we were blessed to have 12 noon Mass said by Bishop Quinn. The Church was packed to the brim with people. During the proclamation of the Gospel, I saw one priest’s mouth wide open staring out at the multitude of people. The look of disbelief was felt by all. Many of the other pilgrim’s in our group talked about how this must be what heaven is like! It was a small glimpse, glimmer of eternity.
That afternoon we went to Auschwitz, the pinnacle of human destruction. As we walked through the camps, people were silent, praying. I kept asking myself, “Where were you, God?”. Toward the end of the camp there is a lake where thousands of people’s ashes were thrown into. Lives ended. As tears welled up in my eyes, I looked to the sky. The hot sun above reminded me that God is always there. Even when the sun is covered by clouds or its night, the sun is still there providing what little light there may be. There was so much darkness at Auschwitz but the sun was still there in people like St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Edith Stien, and countless others who wouldn’t let there light be extinguished. Just as the sun cannot be extinguished neither can God. Second lesson of pilgrimage: God is always there guiding us even when we can’t see him. That night in adoration I was reminded that God leads us to places we don’t want to go. That became my reflection point for the rest of the pilgrimage. I choose the sky even when there is darkness and even when I don’t know the way.
World Youth Day itself was the best but most exhausting experience I have ever gone through. The constant 5-hours-of-sleep nights, crowds, 10-12 miles of walking a day, getting lost (a couple of times), completely wore on me. On Friday I started feeling sick which carried through the rest of the pilgrimage. After the opening Mass on Tuesday, we had multiple issues getting back to our bus. That night I was frustrated, upset, and annoyed. As I walked I prayed for those who are truly lost. I looked up at the stars and wished for guidance for those lost including myself. I choose the sky even when there are difficulties.
The next night we participated in an amazing “Night of Mercy” featuring Matt Maher, Audrey Assad and Bishop Barron at Tauron Arena. I needed quiet time and finally got some in quiet adoration that afternoon. As I was reflecting there I could feel everything come out. The pain, the uncertainty, all the feelings of the last year came pouring out. I knew my heart had become like stone but it became so abundantly clear to me just how deep it was. Earlier this year, by the grace and mercy of God, I started seeking treatment for depression and anxiety. I had found ways to deal with these issues (unhealthy ways) since 3rd grade. I had spent countless years of my life telling myself I was worthless and that everyone would be better off if I wasn’t around.
I had become extremely closed off from God’s mercy. Despite many improvements, I was still upset at God over so many things. God had tried to raise my eyes to the sky but I continued to look towards the ground. The ground is comfortable, easy but lifeless and dull. The ground doesn’t have storms and uncertainties. But we aren’t made to look at the ground, we are meant for the sky. As St. Pope John Paul II said we weren’t made for comfort; we were made for greatness!
I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and it was one of the most healing experiences of my life. For my penance I was told to reflect on Philippians 4: 4-13. When I read it and kept reflecting on the it throughout the rest of the pilgrimage, the line “I can do all things in him who gives me strength" stood out. It was by God’s strength that I got through the next couple of days.
The Vigil was an amazing experience but the sleeping (or lack of) outside and extreme heat was absolutely draining. During the walk back to the hotel from the Vigil site there were times I didn’t think I could go on anymore. The people, the heat, not feeling well. Then I would look to the sky and remember where my strength comes from. And I would pray. During the course of our walk the sky changed from completely sunny to stormy. The rain was very welcome and as it was falling I felt peace. Utter exhaustion, but peace. As I was walking the last little bit to our meeting place I couldn’t help but smile despite utter exhaustion. It was a fleeting feeling but one I will hold onto forever.
God may be hidden behind the clouds but he’s there. He is helping us make the right choices. He is oftentimes leading us where we don’t want to go because he knows it is what will bring us to holiness. World Youth Day was healing for me. I had found myself with a heart of stone but through God’s mercy I leave with a heart of peace. The storms of life are going to come when it looks like God is not there. God will be leading me to places I don’t want to go. In my life when I have gone to those places, it has been the best choice I have ever made in my life. God knows what he is doing. I choose the sky. I choose hope, light, joy, and peace. I choose to rely on God’s strength and mercy to illuminate my path and to lead me to everlasting life. In the end, I choose the sky. Thank you to all those who supported us on this pilgrimage! You and your prayers were lifted high during these past two weeks!