As I embarked upon university and the beginnings of adult life, I began to delve into a search for meaning. I was plagued by feelings of isolation, of inferiority in an intellectually charged community, and, ultimately, of being at a complete and utter loss of the ability to do anything with any perceived “meaning” in the world. All these emotions, along with kind and friendly words and encouragements in the right places, drove me to spend more and more time at Church, and as a result, closer and closer to God.
Slowly, I began to build a home for myself in that small Catholic Durham community. The sense of community and comradery I felt there was what I had been missing in those early university days, and finding it within the very faith that I loved was the fuel for the fire that I needed to drive me to do something I would never have dared to otherwise.
Boldly, I applied with my best friend from school to travel to Lourdes with my home parish in Northampton as a young helper. My friend is not Catholic, but she did go to Catholic school and had been to Lourdes before. Neither of us was particularly involved in parish life. I had not long since received Holy Communion and been Confirmed. Neither of us knew anybody else on the pilgrimage, except one of her friends from school. I could not have been further outside my comfort zone.
To say that we were thrown in at the deep end would be an understatement. From my first minute, rushing around the airport in England, to the very last, we were relentlessly busy. But it was an enjoyable busy – a constancy of social interaction with an exploded sense of community. Every single person I met, helped, gave assistance to in big or small ways, was full of love and faith and incredible stories.
That trip to Lourdes taught me what I really ought to have known already – that the Catholic sense of community goes far beyond our immediate families, our friends, and even our parishes. I had gone from not knowing another Catholic in the world, to finding a small group of friends at university, to discovering and interacting with a collection of seven or eight parishes together. And it would go even beyond that.
In March 2015 I travelled as a helper with HCPT 149 and I found a whole world teeming with that triumvirate of love, faith and stories. The sheer scale of the international scope of HCPT was astounding for someone who came from such an insular background when it came to religion. Making a pilgrimage with HCPT is unlike anything I could ever have possibly imagined, and nothing, not even that first trip to Lourdes, could have prepared me for it. The experience was phenomenal and nigh on indescribable, so much so, that I shall, God willing, be returning again in 2016.
Did I then, on those pilgrimages to Lourdes, find the “meaning” I, like so many others, had been seeking? I found many things that I thought I had not been looking for. I found a confidence in my own faith, and indeed my own knowledge of my faith, that I never thought I would have. I found a wider community – far larger than I could ever have hoped for. I found friendship and faith, laughter and fun, and all the while the feeling of belonging that had been so absent.
In Lourdes, I thought I was looking for something meaningful to do with my life, a sort of extension of the productivity I engaged with on a daily basis at university. Instead I found a different kind of meaning. I found a meaningfulness within my own life, that can be found within the lives of others, and indeed everyone – and I can only pray that each and every visit to Lourdes I make will remind me of that.