A Patron Saint for College Nomads - Guest Post by Amy Marter
If you are currently in college, just flipped your tassel, or - like me - are still struggling with calling a new apartment "home", please enjoy this guest post from one of my good friends, Amy Marter. Amy just graduated as Valedictorian from Christendom College, with a BA in Literature and a minor in Classics. She is working for Our Sunday Visitor for a second summer, volunteers at the Catholic Writers' Conference, and will attend Catholic University of America this fall for a MA in Literature.
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A Patron Saint for College Nomads
If there is one practical skill that I have gained from my college education, it has been that of packing. After four years of moving into dorms and returning home for breaks, I like to think that I have mastered the art. There is an exhilarating liberation that comes from the decision that all of one’s necessary earthly possessions can fit into the back of the station wagon. It gives rise to freedom to roam, travel, explore, with no physical restraints that require a return to any particular place. And many college students take advantage of this freedom: traveling several states away for school, summer jobs and internships, not to mention study abroad programs. In a certain sense, the college lifestyle is almost nomadic; it’s an interesting phase of life when a student is still ‘from’ a place, even though he spends eight months of the year, or more, away from it.
A consequence of this nomadic phase of life is that no single place can necessarily be called home. It can be disarming returning to one’s family after months away to find that things have changed and yet remained the same. In some ways, it feels like being a stranger or a guest in one’s own home, just a temporary stay in what used to be a permanent residence. This feeling is heightened by the fact that even after a month or a semester at school, we have a new identity forged by the experiences of community life that our friends and family back home do not share. I remember having an identity crisis after fall break freshman year trying to determine which of the place of residence of my seemingly double life was truly my home. The resolution I eventually reached, with the help of a friend, was that home was wherever God wanted me to be at that time.
However, this nomadic, collegiate phase can be seen as a microcosm of human life as a whole. Regardless of whether you have never left your native state or traveled the world, none of us are truly at home. That perfect rest, utter peace, acceptance, and embrace of love which most of us associate with that particular combination of those four letters ultimately cannot be experienced in its fullness in this life. The Greeks have a beautiful word for this concept: νόστος (nostos), which literally means homecoming, from the verb (νέομαι for the Greek scholars) that means "to return". Ever since the Fall, man has been seeking to return to his original state of friendship with God. In a sense, this entire life is a journey home to God, a pilgrimage; and one of the disguised blessings of college life is a frequent awareness of the fact that we are not there yet.
Enter St. Alessio. As in most situations within the drama of human experience, there is a patron saint to guide us. I first encountered this saint towards the end of my Rome semester while exploring churches on the Aventine hill. The son of a Roman nobleman, the story is that Alessio went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he experienced a profound conversion. He returned so utterly transformed, both in his spiritual disposition and physical appearance, that his family did not recognize him. Out of charity, they let him stay in the house in a small room under the stairs. In this ‘cell’, so to speak, St. Alessio lived a life of intense prayer for the remaining 17 years of his life. He was a pilgrim within his own house, with his family only discovering his true identity after his death.
What struck me most about St. Alessio was that while many of us identify home with the place where we receive love and affection from our family, this saint lived at home without that connection with his parents or siblings. He was actually treated as a guest in his own house. Yet, Alessio made the place truly his home by remaining a pilgrim and continuing to grow in his journey with God. It was his home in as much as he found God and fulfilled God’s will there.
When we are out of our native environment, it is easy to believe that we are pilgrims on a spiritual journey that is not of this world. Yet, as St. Alessio shows us, that is not the only way to live out our earthly pilgrimage. G.K. Chesterton captures this idea in one of my favorite lines from the opening of The Everlasting Man: “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.” The beauty of St. Alessio’s story is that he found his way home in both of these aspects: through his physical pilgrimage and return and his residence as a pilgrim in the household where he was no longer recognized. While most of us probably take the latter route that Chesterton describes, the point is not how long or far the path takes us, but that we reach our journey’s end.
So whatever destination lies at the end of your road as you depart campus this summer—whether it be your familial household, a part-time or full-time job, a first house as a married couple, or your entrance into the so-called real world after graduation—may St. Alessio guide your path and remind you that this time is just one more stage of your pilgrimage. To my fellow graduates, as we are sent out from the home we have known and the pilgrimage that we have shared for the past four years, know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Regardless of how long your journey is, or how far you ramble across this earth, may we all meet again and come to rest within the gates of our eternal home.
St. Alessio, pray for us!
|By Père Igor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikemedia Commons|