While all the other pilgrims were having incredibly rich once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I was back in our accommodation in bed. I had eaten an off yoghurt and contracted food poisoning. According to my aunt’s medical advice from back home, in order to recover I had to starve the bug and eat nothing for a few days. I was too sick to get out of bed, I was too nauseous to read, Wi-Fi only connected on the first level and we were on the seventh, and because our accommodation was a university college there was no television.
It was a pretty dreary time but it would have been drearier had I not experienced the things I did on this pilgrimage leading up to when I got sick.
We live in a culture based on instant gratification and constant distractions. If we’re meeting a friend for coffee and we’re early (although I’m never early - my friend Olivia can certainly confirm this) it is socially unacceptable for us to just sit there quietly, empty handed. Our society feeds on our distracted selves - grocery shops are stocked with magazines for when we’re waiting in line at the check-out and have you noticed that every app now wants you to enable notifications? As if we don’t have reason enough already to constantly consult our phones?
What I’m saying is that it’s super hard to distance yourself from such a culture when you’re a product of it. Coming onto the pilgrimage, I literally packed four books and preloaded Spotify with thousands of songs. I thought I was thoroughly prepared for what I expected to be ‘down time,’ or transit time. Things to do in our free time, or waiting in line or sitting on long bus rides. But I was amazed to realise at the end of the pilgrimage that I did not read a single page of a book and I only listened to a maximum of five songs from my playlist. It wasn’t that we were so busy that there was no time to wait in lines, and trust me, we spent a lot of time on the bus.
It was that the spiritual growth I experienced in the short period of time before the official World Youth Day - so, a period of about 2 weeks - was such that I didn’t want to distract myself. I didn’t want my attention drawn away from the present moment I was living in. When I was waiting a long time for the baker to toast my sandwich, I didn’t get out my book or check my newsfeed. I savoured the moment - I felt so close to God that all I wanted to do live in the present.
I don’t quite know how to explain it, maybe heaven is really in the North Pole and Poland is just more close to it than Australia. The pilgrimage sites we visited were incredible - Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the Black Madonna, the shrine of divine mercy, the many many relics we saw - but I didn’t particularly feel especially holy when I visited them. I think what really drew me closer to the Lord was two things: the fellowship shared between our pilgrimage group and observing the devotion the Polish people had to God. In both scenarios, I was surrounded by like-minded people who were yearning to know the Lord more intimately and in doing so, were growing in their faith.
Constantly being with other young Catholics, combined with frequently witnessing the Polish people’s intense faith and adoration, allowed me to draw closer to God to the extent that while lying sick in my bed in Krakow, I felt no desire to watch those crappy reality shows that are really only good for the days when you’re half dead and unable to concentrate on anything more substantial. I didn’t even feel like listening to the vast library of songs I had download prior to the pilgrimage.
I don’t pretend to be a saint though - there were definitely times when I was seriously frustrated with God, and it was hard not to feel bitter when everyone came back from their amazing days. And I may have been more than a little pissed of when I saw people eating curries and burgers when all I could eat were two dry crackers per meal. But i was thoroughly surprised to find that I was quite content with simply lying in bed, pondering everything that had led me to that moment and planning the ways I could enact what I had learned during the pilgrimage in my everyday life.
This reflection was written by Catherine, who enjoys reading very old books and cleaning. She has a cat to whom she is allergic and doesn't particularly like, and has an unhealthy obsession with "Dance Moms".