My experience at university was pretty radical. People often say that uni is where you really 'find yourself' and that always seemed a little cheesy and dramatic to me. 'Find myself? Nah'. Reinvent myself' was more my aim when I packed my bags in Wales and headed to Birmingham. I was very ready to leave behind my small town and go somewhere no one knew me, and just let loose. I went thinking 'you're going to make a million new friends, fall madly in love, and do some pretty wild things'. But in reality, I got there and yeah, it turns out we don't reinvent ourselves, we really do find ourselves, and my real-self was a whole lot tamer than I expected her to be.
My conversion (or re-conversion) to the faith came towards the end of my first year of uni. I was nearly 20, I had done my fair share of wandering and searching for happiness, fulfilment, and peace, and nothing had quite yet filled that hole in my heart. I wasn’t unhappy, but I was a little lost, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
My childhood had been filled with Sunday School and Bible stories, and I had loved it. I loved how simple it all seemed; there was good and there was bad, Jesus loved me, there was heaven, and the goal in life was to be kind and to love. Yup, that was the gist of everything my nan and her old pals would tell me at Sunday School, and what I would think about as I recited my prayers before bed. It was cosy.
But life isn’t as simple as Sunday School made it out to be, and at 15 I was faced with a lot more mess and sadness than I thought possible, and those cosy stories about kindness and love didn’t seem to add up.When I was 15, my friend was murdered, and I had no idea how to align that level of tragedy and cruelty in the same world where God existed. It all seemed so senseless, my faith was shaken, and it was then that I walked away from the church.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever stopped believing in God’s existence, but I did stop believing in His goodness. He existed, but He wasn’t doing me any good, so what was the point in all this church stuff? What was the point in praying to someone who didn’t really seem to have my back? "God isn't making me happy," I thought, "so I guess I'll just have to do that for myself." But still. He existed, and that small grain of faith left in my brain was enough for God to use later.
Fast forward 4 years: after a pretty rough battle with both mental and physical health, I get to university a year later than I’d originally planned. University was a world of experience and encounter. Every day was filled with meeting new people and doing new things; constantly stimulated through new lessons in studies, but also in life, with a whole lot of partying piled on top. I was definitely seeking something, I wasn't sure what (well, I think I thought I knew what *cough* boys *cough*) but no matter how many lectures I went to, or how many lectures I skipped to go out instead, my search was still lacking something. Yet it was here where the pieces started to all fall into place, it was here where God’s seemingly senseless plan started to make just a little sense to me.
I was so beyond blessed to be placed in a flat, in the bedroom directly opposite, the most amazing Christian girl. She quickly became my best friend, and she began to ask me more and more questions about my faith, my family, and my childhood. After a little while, she asked if I wanted to start going to church with her, and it was that simple invitation that opened the door for my return.
By taking that step back in to church, by giving that seed of 'God exists' that small chance to blossom into something more, I began my journey back towards Him and all the peace and joy He had to offer me. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t instant. Church felt nice, it was very homely and reminded me of my nan and all the things I missed about my childhood, but I still felt uneasy, and I could still feel that hurt in my heart.
My friend, seeing that something was still lacking decided to introduce me some friends she knew at the Catholic society. She knew I'd been to a Catholic school and thought maybe, just maybe, this Catholic community was what was missing. I wasn't so convinced. I remember so clearly her pretty much physically dragging me along to the welcome BBQ, and me arriving and being so sure they would all smell the 'unfaithful' on me and want nothing to do with me. But when I arrived and I entered Mass, that anxiety vanished. I remember looking around at the point of consecration and seeing this chapel full of young people kneeling before the Eucharist and I was blown away. This is what I was missing, and I still to this day (even after World Youth Day and a LOT of youth retreats) don't think I've ever experienced awe quite like it.
After that first BBQ, I went along to more and more of the societies socials, and I started to ask them (and God) more and more questions, and I felt my heart begin to let go of the hurt of the past, and really begin to rest in God again. It became clear to me that everything I had been seeking was right there, in that chapel. I'd tried to find happiness in so many things, but all along the thing I was truly missing was God. And not the safe God from my Sunday school filled childhood, but a tangible and life-changing God. A God that caused a room full of young people to fall to their knees. A God that met me in my brokenness and showed me a better way.
It's funny, the loss of one friend was what made me lose faith in the goodness of God, but it was the gaining of a whole community of new ones that made me see God's glory like I never had before. I had never met a group of people so full of life! And it wasn't a temporary, substance induced superficial vibrancy, it was a pure and contagious light. The love and kindness I doubted in God was so present in them, and it gave me back the trust in Him that I had lost. It made me realise I didn't want to reinvent myself, I just wanted to stop battling with myself and just rest. Put to rest the hurt, the confusion, the doubt, and let Him give me the peace He died to give me.
CathSoc helped me to see that had my friend not died, had I not broken down and checked out of school for a year, had I not been challenged in all these ways, I would not be here in this university, with these people, at this time. I would not be the person that I now was, and my life would have looked very different. I would have gone to uni a year earlier, met completely different people, and had a whole different experience. And I knew that I would not have wanted that; I would not have swapped any of those challenges for anything, because I didn't want to swap this peace I was feeling for anything. I was where God intended me to be.
Once I realised this, something in me changed forever. I knew I couldn't keep this peace to myself, I knew I had to go out and share it! After a year receiving from CathSoc I just knew I needed to serve, so I became the secretary and found so much joy in throwing myself head first into growing this beautiful community.
That's the amazing thing about a CathSoc; you're not only a community for each other, but also for the whole campus and city! You are disciples, sent out to share your faith and His love with your whole campus. You have the ability to change lives, the way my CathSoc changed mine.
So I suppose I wasn't so wrong about uni; I did make a lot of new friends, I did fall in love (albeit with my faith rather than the cute guy I imagined), and I did do something pretty wild; I got confirmed on the Pentecost of my second year, and I've never looked back.