Friday, August 26, 2016

What I Learned about Pilgrimage on My Trip to Europe

My trip to Europe this summer was not a vacation or a touristy trip. It was a pilgrimage. While it certainly had its share of adventures, excitement, and seeing/doing/experiencing cool things, the trip was meant to be a pilgrimage and therefore a spiritual journey. Thus the main focus of the trip was deepening our spiritual lives and growing closer to God through prayer and a spirit of pilgrimage.

I learned a lot on this trip about what pilgrimage is and about what it means to have a spirit of pilgrimage. And through it all, I grew and changed significantly. Allow me to share with you some of what I learned.

Going with the flow is part of pilgrimage.
Sometimes you don't know what's happening next in the schedule, or how long it will take to get somewhere. Or maybe you do, but then the schedule changes unexpectedly, or you take a wrong turn and it takes twice as long to get where you're going. Whatever happens, just live in the moment. You are always right where you're meant to be. Embrace the journey and don't worry. Adopting this attitude is part of embracing a spirit of pilgrimage.

Suffering is bound to happen, and it's part of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is certainly not free of struggles and sufferings. On my trip, nearly everyone got sick (sometimes more than once), and there were a multitude of other illnesses and injuries people experienced. A few people had a family member back home that passed away while they were abroad. And everyone endured sufferings like exhaustion, being annoyed by someone, being homesick, and plenty of other small annoyances and trials. But it's all part of the journey and part of pilgrimage ~ especially because these sufferings made for excellent opportunities for sacrifice.

Living simply is part of pilgrimage.
We ate and lived quite simply most of the time, with a few moments of "luxury" in between. Most of the time we were staying in monasteries with a religious order, so we ate their simple meals with them. Or sometimes we bought food for the whole group on the spot at a grocery store. Furthermore, all of us lived out of a hiking backpack, with about a week's worth of clothes and a couple pairs of shoes, for 5 weeks. This pilgrimage gave us a chance to take a step back from our comfortable, convenient lives in America and experience the joy and grace of living simply.

Pilgrimage is less about tourism and more about God.
While there were some touristy moments and excursions (like freaking out when we saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris), tourism is not the purpose of pilgrimage. In fact, on this trip, we spent more days at the monasteries where we were staying ~ praying Lauds and Vespers, doing chores, having time for personal prayer, and spending time together ~ than we did seeing all the sights of Europe. Because the purpose of pilgrimage is to grow closer to God and to deepen our spiritual lives.

On pilgrimage, God speaks to people's hearts in different ways.
There's no denying that God worked in the hearts of every one of us over the course of our trip. And oftentimes it varied from person to person. Some people received certain graces or gifts from God that I did not, even though I might have liked to. Some people endured extraordinary sufferings, physically or emotionally, that I did not, and God used it to speak to their hearts. God spoke to everyone in a different way ~ a unique way. And the unique way in which God worked in each person's heart was perfectly fitting for that person and exactly what God wanted for that person. This aspect of pilgrimage that was beautiful to watch.

On pilgrimage, graces abound during and after.
There were times on my trip when I didn't or couldn't make the most of a moment that would have been very special and grace-filled. For instance, during the prayer vigil with the Pope during World Youth Day, I was still reeling from experiencing heat exhaustion earlier in the afternoon, and it was hard for me to enter fully into prayer and be fully present at the beautiful event. At first it saddened me as I felt like I had missed out on fully experiencing the beauty and graces of the vigil. But I realized something ~ that grace is available not only during a moment, but also after. God can (and often did on this trip) bestow graces on you as you go back and reflect on a certain experience and pray about it. Graces can abound both during and after a spiritual experience or encounter.

Pilgrimage is a reflection of our pilgrimage to heaven.
Our lives are a continual journey toward heaven, toward eternal, blissful union with God in heaven. And pilgrimage, like the one I made this summer, is a reflection of that. We were on a physical journey through France and Poland that culminated in World Youth Day, seeking to encounter God, to deepen our relationships with Him, to receive His graces, and to grow in the love and joy of Him. And this very much reflects the way in which our lives are lifelong pilgrimages to God in heaven.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Highlights of Europe: Prague

Today I want to share with you one of my favorite places I visited in Europe this summer: Prague, Czech Republic. We stopped there on our way from France to Poland, and it was an excellent way to break up the long bus ride. We arrived in Prague pretty late at night, but still got up bright and early in the morning to make the most of our time there. We explored the city for about 4-5 hours ~ but many of us wished we could be there for 4 or 5 days! Nonetheless, we still got a good taste of Prague in the time that we did have.

The buildings in Prague are beautiful with their unique architecture, their different pastel colors, and their distinctly Eastern European look. When I was there, the city's cobblestone streets and sidewalks were slippery from the on-and-off rain, but it only added to the charm and delight of our visit. There were lots of cute shops with unique (often handmade and hand-painted) items, and lots of restaurants and coffee shops as well. Prague is also home to the Infant of Prague, and we were able to visit the church that houses Him and even attend Sunday Mass there.

I fell so in love with this city so fast and I will definitely be going back someday (and for a longer visit)! And now I'll let my photos do the rest of the talking...

the Infant of Prague

Have you ever been to Prague?


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Weekend on Mackinac Island

My family and I just got home from a two-night stay on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan (my lovely home state). If you've never heard of Mackinac Island, it's an island off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and you can only get there by taking a ferry. Once you're on the island, which is 8.2 miles around, your only transportation is walking, riding bikes, or taking horse-drawn carriages ~ because there are no cars on the island! Mackinac is mostly a place for tourists, with its peak season in the summer (because they get some hella cold and snowy winters up there), but there are a few hundred people who live there year-round.

During our stay on the island, my family enjoyed some amazing food, beautiful scenery, and fun activities, from taking a carriage tour around the island to exploring all the cute shops downtown. We stayed at the Island House Hotel, which was a lovely experience especially because of the amazing breakfasts they served! It also overlooked the harbor and the lake, so we had a stunning view out our hotel room window (and from the hotel's front porch).

On Sunday afternoon, we went to afternoon tea at the Grand Hotel ~ which is quite grand. (If you've seen the movie "Somewhere in Time," it was filmed at the Grand Hotel!) It's absolutely huge, and it has bright, colorful, gaudy carpets and walls and decorations inside. It stands up on a hill and overlooks Lake Huron ~ and you can see it from pretty far away when you're on the lake or Mackinac Bridge which goes over the lake.

Our afternoon tea experience was lovely: the atmosphere was so elegant and the tea was done so properly that occasionally I would forget I was in Michigan for a fleeting second ~ and would subconsciously think I was in England or something. We enjoyed endless cups of tea and delicious sandwiches and treats to go along with it. I think my favorite treat was the chocolate covered strawberries... oh my goodness.

After tea, we strolled through the Grand Hotel's gardens and enjoyed all the beautiful flowers!

During our trip, we also enjoyed just exploring the island and seeing all the beautiful sights. Like when we stopped to enjoy the view of Lake Huron from the rocks on the shore:

And as we just generally appreciated the gorgeousness of Mackinac Island:

Needless to say, our vacation to Mackinac Island was a lovely and fun-filled experience! I highly recommend going to Mackinac Island if you're looking for an active vacation in a quaint setting with beautiful scenery, amazing restaurants, and plenty of fun stuff to do!

Have you ever been to Mackinac Island? Have you gone on any fun trips this summer?

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Random Observations about Europe (after Spending 5 Weeks There)

In 5 weeks of traveling around Europe (primarily around France and Poland), I definitely noticed a lot of things about European culture. As with any different culture, the Europeans do things a little differently than we Americans, because of their unique history, heritage, and cultural norms. It was really interesting to notice these different things about European culture, and I'd like to share some of my observations with you here!

You often have to pay to use the bathrooms.
Found a public bathroom? There's a decently good chance that there will be a small charge to use it. This could be the case at a tourist site, at a religious pilgrimage site, or even in a McDonald's. Free bathrooms are relatively few and far between, so you learn to take advantage of one when you find one!

In France, they literally eat so much bread.
Everything you've ever heard about the French and their love for bread and their high levels of bread consumption ~ it's all 100% true. Bread for breakfast (literally for breakfast), bread with lunch, and bread with dinner. Endless amounts of it. At one point in Poland, after having been in France for 2 weeks, I asked a French girl if it's normal for the French to eat so much bread. And she said yes, and that it was weird for her to not be having bread with every meal in Poland.

While in Poland, they have more of an appreciation for meat.
Upon arriving in Poland and eating Polish meals, all my meat cravings (and my need for protein and anything besides carbs) were satisfied. The Polish are definitely more into "meat and potatoes" kinda meals, and they of course have lots of sausage, and also hearty soups. Yum.

There are churches everywhere.
In every village, town, and city, there's a church. If not multiple churches. And it's often situated in the center of the town, or it's at least a focal point, wherever it's situated. When we were driving across Germany to get to and from Poland, we could see little villages and towns from our big charter bus on the freeway, and in every single one there was always a church. And these European churches are, in most cases, really old, and every last one of them is gorgeous (both its interior and exterior).

Most towns have a town square.
Oftentimes in the central part of a town, there's a town square. It's an actual square shaped by the buildings around it, where no cars can drive through ~ it's only meant for pedestrians. You can go there with friends and have dinner at one of the restaurants, or grab ice cream or a beer and sit somewhere and hang out. There might be live music playing, and sometimes dancing to go along with it. You might go there during the day, or in the evening. Whatever you do there, the town squares are such fun, lovely places to hang out with friends ~ I wish we had them here in the U.S.!

There's KFC everywhere.
I don't know what it is, but Europe, at least France, has some kinda something for KFC! We spotted more KFC there than McDonald's! Any busy area with lots of food places, any rest stop, etc. ~ almost guaranteed to have a KFC.

People have mixed reactions when you tell them you're from the U.S.
Some people get really excited and fascinated, and promptly ask you something about Los Angeles or New York City. (But then when you tell them what state you're from, they have no idea what you're talking about.) Then some people are like, "ohhhh, America, uh-huh," and act a little skeptical. They might then make some comment to you about Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. It was always interesting to see how people would react when we told them we were Americans (although they could usually tell before we even said anything, ha).

Most places are closed on Sundays.
If you wanted to go out and about in a smaller town on a Sunday afternoon, chances are most places were closed. Many businesses in European towns, except for a few of the necessities, are closed on Sundays. I actually found this quite refreshing, and it helped remind me and my fellow Americans of how Sunday is a day of rest and family ~ not shopping and taking care of business.

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and dinner is smaller.
What usually constitutes lunch for us in America ~ a lighter meal ~ is dinner in Europe, and what's usually dinner for us ~ a larger, heartier meal ~ is lunch for them. So for lunch we would have a hot meal of meat or fish, potatoes or rice, and vegetables, and maybe soup as an appetizer. Then for dinner, we would have sandwiches or some kind of lighter food. At first it was strange, since it's mirror opposite of how we eat in the U.S., but it actually makes sense ~ having a larger meal in the middle of the day when you still need lots of energy, then having a smaller meal later in the day when you're starting to wind down. Also, in Europe they eat meals at later times than we do in America. Lunch is usually eaten anywhere between 1 and 2pm, and dinner is eaten anywhere between 7 and 8pm.

Europeans generally live quieter, slower lives than Americans.
There were several times where we Americans were the recipients of weird looks or glares because of how "loud and obnoxious" we were being. There were even times when a French person would tell our group leader we needed to be quieter at meals (...oops). So while we Americans tend to be loud (often without even realizing it), Europeans tend to be quieter overall.

Also, in America our culture is very work-oriented and "go, go, go." There's pressure to hustle and be productive and live life at a fast, even nonstop pace. But in Europe, they tend to take life at a slower pace. They take their time at meals; they close their businesses in the evenings and on Sundays; they're not constantly hustling and pushing to get as much work done as possible. I think we Americans can learn a little something from our European friends about appreciating slowness and quietness in life more.

Have you ever been to Europe? What are some differences between America and Europe that you've noticed?


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Instagram Roundup: Europe Edition

Happy Wednesday, friends! It's time for another Instagram roundup ~ and this time I'll be sharing my IG's from my trip to Europe! I was fortunate enough to have free international data while I was overseas, so I was able to Instagram my way through my trip. It was a great way for me to share little bits of beauty from my trip with friends back home, and with you, my followers!

Let's relive some of my European adventures right now with this roundup:

A photo posted by Stephanie (@stephanie.therese) on

A photo posted by Stephanie (@stephanie.therese) on

A photo posted by Stephanie (@stephanie.therese) on

A photo posted by Stephanie (@stephanie.therese) on

A photo posted by Stephanie (@stephanie.therese) on


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

5 Things World Youth Day Taught Me

My experience at World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland was unforgettable. It was fun, exciting, difficult, stressful, eye-opening, inspiring, and so many other things, all at the same time. I learned so much about myself, about other people, about God, about the world. And there are a few key things I learned that I'd like to share with you here.

1. The world is a big place.
This may sound like an obvious statement. But I think that we (especially we Americans) get so caught up in our own country and culture ~ our own little world ~ that we never open our eyes to other countries and cultures. Maybe we're hesitant to, or we forget to, or we don't even think to, because our own culture is so comfortable while other cultures are unfamiliar. So ultimately, we often end up having a narrow worldview.

But in reality, there are many other countries out there besides our own, all of which have cultures that, though different from ours, are beautiful, unique, and rich with tradition.

WYD gave me a taste of how big the world really is, and of the small fraction that America takes up in it. I don't mean to belittle our country or anything like that. I simply mean to convey the importance of opening our eyes to the rest of the world that lies beyond our own country, and of learning about and appreciating other cultures.

A quote I came across on Pinterest sums it up perfectly: "Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."

2. Yet, it's not hard to make friends with people.
All of that said ~ even when the people in this great big world don't speak our native language, or have a culture that's completely different from our own ~ it's not difficult to befriend these different people. Smiling, singing, dancing, and high-fiving are universal languages that people of all nationalities, cultures, and tongues can speak together (and believe me, there was plenty of that at WYD, and it was wonderful). Or if you and someone else happen to speak a mutual language, saying hello and asking "where are you from?" are such simple things that can spark a conversation and a friendship.

These things were among my favorite parts about WYD. Meeting people from all over the world and exchanging joyful greetings, whether through words, smiles, or high-fives. Having conversations with people from all over the world (if they spoke English ;) and learning about their country and their way of life. Making friends from all different countries and cultures. The camaraderie at WYD is truly special.

3. Seeing the Pope in person is such a special experience.
It's always great to watch videos or TV footage of the Pope, of course. But let me tell you: seeing him in real life is amazing. As he drove through the crowd at the Papal Welcoming Ceremony, I could just see the top of the pope-mobile and the top of his head  ~ and I was shrieking uncontrollably, screaming, "HE'S RIGHT THERE!" and crying. Then I got to hear his voice and listen to his speech with my own ears, live and in person ~ which was also incredible.

Even though Papa Francesco only looked about an inch tall from my vantage point during all the events, it was still amazing to see him in person. Seeing the Vicar of Christ himself, in the flesh, hearing him speak to you, praying with him, receiving his blessing... all of it is incredible grace.

4. There's no joy like the joy at WYD.
Going into WYD, I was a little nervous about the crowds. I was afraid that all the people and all the noise would be overwhelming and stressful for me. While there certainly were difficult moments, it didn't take long for me to notice the contagious, unabashed joy present at WYD.

Everyone is cheering, clapping, and smiling all the time, chanting, "Papa Francesco," waving their flags proudly, and high-fiving new friends from other countries. Everyone is so excited to be there, so excited to see the Holy Father, and just so full of joy.

So instead of being overwhelming, the crowdedness and noisiness were exciting ~ because the atmosphere of WYD is sheer joy. And that joy is the joy of the Holy Spirit. It's beautiful.

5. Being a young person is exciting.
All of Pope Francis' addresses at WYD were so inspiring. These talks, along with my WYD experience as a whole, really made me feel excited to be a young person, a young Catholic, a member of the young Church. I felt empowered as I came to realize a few things: As young people, we have our whole lives ahead of us. So let's really live. Our lives are full of possibilities. So dare to dream. Don't be afraid. Don't settle. God has incredible lives planned for us ~ so let's live them. Don't be afraid to really live.

I highly recommend looking up Pope Francis' talks from WYD and reading them yourself. They will really inspire you to embrace being a young person and to live your life to the fullest.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

July Recap and August Goals

Hey friends! I usually try to publish my monthly goals posts within the first few days of the month, but what with being overseas and away from the computer for 5 weeks, this one is coming to you a little late. Better late than never though, right?

On a similar note: isn't it crazy that we're already almost halfway through August?! I had pretty much no concept of the date for the last 5 weeks when I was in Europe, so now that I'm home and realizing how late in the summer it is, I can't even believe it! Especially because August / late summer means school is starting soon. Like, whaaaat?! On one hand I'm excited to go back to school, but on the other hand I wish I didn't have to go back so soon!

Without further ado, here's a recap of how I did on my July goals, as well as my goals for August. Like last month, I'm participating in an awesome Monthly Intentions collab with lots of other awesome bloggers! Be sure to check out their monthly goals posts too!

J U L Y  R E C A P

Goal: Have an amazing trip!

I can most definitely say I achieved my one and only goal for July! My trip to Europe was truly amazing ~ even life-changing. I already wrote one post about it, and there will definitely be lots more to come, so stay tuned!

A U G U S T  G O A L S
  • Finish journaling about my trip
  • Finish reading the books I started on my trip
  • Say a prayer in the morning as soon as I get up, and one at night right before I go to bed
  • Blog 3 times a week
  • Get rid of some more clothes
  • Visit with my cousins + home friends at least one more time
  • Do my back-to-school shopping
  • Get my planner, notebooks, etc. ready for the new semester
What are your goals for this month?


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

I'm Home from Europe - and I am Forever Changed

Hey everyone! After being relatively MIA for the past few weeks, I'm officially back in the good old U.S.A. after my trip to Europe! (And I'm on my laptop for the first time in 5 weeks, which is a super weird experience.) Even though the jet lag struggle is (very) real and I already miss Europe, I'm really glad to be home!

I'll have many a blog post to publish about my European excursion in the coming days and weeks... I have so much to tell you about! My trip was partially tourism/exploring/adventuring, but was even more so a time of pilgrimage and spiritual growth. In many ways, it was like a 5 week-long retreat.

Toulouse, Lourdes, Lisieux, Paris, Prague, Czestochowa, Krakow, World Youth Day. This trip had its ups and downs, its highs and lows, its joys and trials, its excitement and difficulties. I was pushed, pulled, stretched, tried, and molded, on physical, emotional, cultural, and especially spiritual levels.

I learned so much on this trip, about God, about myself, about life. God spoke to me, revealed Himself to me, and changed me in many ways.

I am a different person for having gone on this trip. I am not and cannot be the same person after being transformed in the ways I was transformed.

The Stephanie who went on this trip 5 weeks ago is not the Stephanie who came home from it.

Stay tuned for more in-depth posts about my trip, as well as photos! I'll give you a few photos for starters right now:

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