I was brought up in an amazing Catholic family, and have been a member of the same parish my whole life. Both my parents and grandparents are/were active in the community and, as a child and young teenager, I longed to follow in their footsteps - becoming a reader at the Saturday Vigil Mass like Grandad was, and helping my Mum and younger sister to run the monthly CAFOD stall. Before starting uni, I felt quite disappointed that these commitments to my parish would have to stop when I moved away.
Starting uni, I was really keen to keep practising my faith. I attended all the CathSoc (Catholic Society) events, was open with my flatmates about my faith, stayed in touch with my Catholic friends from home, but I realised I didn't really feel anything. I felt like something was missing. Faith-wise, I was doing pretty much the same as when I lived at home, but something felt different. I didn't feel as connected to my faith like I was at home, surrounded by my family and a great Catholic community. I guess you could say that I felt lost.
During my first term, I was invited to stay with one of my close friends at Birmingham for a weekend. It so happened that the Autumn CaSSU (Catholic Societies of Southern Universities) retreat was being hosted by her CathSoc that weekend. Without her invite, I would never have attended - as a student at a Northern university, I felt like a traitor just being there at first! While my friend was busy serving with her committee, I was 'forced' to talk to new people and make friends. I met so many people who were so alive in their faith.
Over the course of the weekend, I saw God work like never before. I think that I'd previously seen Him as an untouchable, inaccessible being who was just there. But that weekend, for the first time, I saw the reality of God. In the conversations had, the friendships made and the actions of others, God was there.
I remember Mass on the Sunday of that weekend - being completely taken aback and amazed at the reverence shown when everyone went forward to receive communion. I'd previously never seen anyone receive the Body of Christ any other way than in their hands. But seeing people - people my age - bow, genuflect or even kneel to receive the Eucharist made me realise: "This IS God". Although it was something I'd always known and accepted, it was during that weekend that it became a reality for me.
I left the retreat that weekend craving the faith that was so tangible in my new friends. I wanted to stop seeing God as out of reach, and to have love for Him like they did. I wanted to have that real awareness of God's presence in my life, so other people could see God in me like I could in those new friends. I wanted to make my faith mine, to truly believe it, rather than being something I just did.
During confession that weekend, the priest had encouraged me to pray more. To take steps to deepen my relationship with God, to strive to grow in faith. At home, I'd always prayed with my family before bedtime, but this wasn't something I'd continued at uni. I wanted to pray, to use my own words when talking to God, to have a conversation with Him. But I've never had the same ability at getting my thoughts out of my mouth in the same way I can in writing, and so I really struggled at first. I often felt awkward, didn't know what to say and found the silence intimidating. It was so disheartening and I was beginning to grow frustrated that I didn't feel any closer to God than before.
It was one evening that I remembered about a notebook that I'd bought years before, and had brought to uni with me on a whim. I managed to find it, and began to write to God. I wrote and wrote - it was like everything I wanted to say to God just exploded out of my mind, through the pen, and onto the page. When I finally finished writing that night, I felt different. I felt like God was reminding me that prayer doesn't have to be a set routine, that talking to Him shouldn't be difficult, that I should trust in Him, my Heavenly Father.
Throughout last year, I continued to find new ways to pray. Volunteering at a couple of Celebrate weekends and attending more Youth 2000 retreats gave me a love for praise and worship - for praying with not just my lips, but my whole body too. I had always loved singing and dancing to music, but letting this become a form of prayer was completely new to me. Letting the lyrics wash over me, feeling every beat of the music, allowing myself to completely let go of my inhibitions and worship God with my heart, mind and body. Times like these are when I feel closest to God.
And so journaling and praise and worship, along with reading scripture, became regular features of my days - time I took out of the busyness of uni life to talk with God. I went on more retreats, became more involved with my CathSoc, and ultimately, made more Catholic friends.
These things all inspired me, and helped me to find new ways to grow in love with God. And out of this, I suddenly found myself able to pray without needing to write. I have even started being able to pray aloud - something I would have never even considered twelve months ago.
My previous worries vanished, almost overnight, and I learnt to stop worrying about what I was saying. To be open, vulnerable and to pour my heart out to God. After all, He knows me better than I know myself!
In the last eighteen months, uni has changed my faith more than I could have prayed or imagined, bringing me closer to God.
Most importantly, my faith is now mine.
I'm a firm believer that faith is an adventure, and with half of my degree still to go, I can't wait to see how God uses the next eighteen months of uni to bring me closer to Him!
God does amazing things with all of us - we just have to trust and say "yes" to Him.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths".