What a week. The last seven days have just been out of this world. In every sense of the word. An entire week filled with the best definition I could provide to a vacation: disconnecting from one’s everyday life in order to focus once again on themself outside of their comfort zone. For some people, this vacation entails going somewhere on their own. For others, the company of their partner, family, or some friends would brilliantly do the trick. After all, I remember a Chinese conversation I once read, between a panda and a dragon. In this exchange, the panda asked: “What is more important? The trip or the destination?” After hearing this question, the dragon took a moment to gather its thoughts, before finally briefly replying: “The company”.
I often considered the dragon’s response to be accurate to a certain degree. After all, a trip’s memories are best determined through the moments we create and live with the people around us. It is true that the destination in itself does play a role in our appreciation of the disconnection we are experiencing, yet again this impact will either increase or decrease based on the expectations of those with us. I have travelled to amazing places where I could not witness all of the magic around me since my travel companions did share the same expectations and vibes as I did. The exact opposite took place when I went to average cities across Europe, yet I still look back in joy – and even a bit of nostalgia – on what I consider to be some of the best trips I have experienced, because those who joined me on this adventure were out of this world.
Last week, the location played the sole part of being outside of Paris, outside of my comfort zone. The people I met there were what made this excursion unforgettable in so many ways.
“Many places I have been, many sorrows I have seen But I do not regret, nor will I forget, all who took that road with me” - The Last Goodbye by Billy Boyd
I spent the last eight days in a retreat centre within the city walls of Frascati, just on the outside of the Italian capital of Rome. Although I did get to spend three-quarters of a day in what I like to consider the “city of love”, most of the time involved remaining in the centre in Frascati. At first, I would understand how some may find it weird to travel so far just to stay in a retreat centre for a week, instead of enjoying the beauty of Italian cities and making the most of my work vacation days. For me, I could not have spent those vacation days any better.
For you see, a vacation does require disconnection, ways to calm down, forget about work, and just enjoy the present as it is. My trips usually entail visiting a new city, embracing a new culture, meeting new people, making unforgettable memories, and finally getting some rest from my daily routine. Thankfully, my stay in Frascati was not different.
The initial aim behind this trip was to attend the Youth Teams of Our Lady (YTOL for short) international meeting. The event usually takes every two years, with the exception of 2020 due to the pandemic. The meeting consists of a spiritual retreat lasting for the duration of a week, where members of the movement gather from the whole world. The program for this Catholic movement involves times of prayer, mass, spiritual reflection in small groups, as well as dancing, singing, guitar playing, cultural presentations as well random games and activities in order to spend unforgettable moments. The main aim of this international meeting is to provide a setting for young people to get to discover new countries, make new friends and embark on a short-timed spiritual trip together.
Although I had gone to the previous two meetings in Spain and Brazil, the need for more was present more than ever, convincing me that I needed to go to Italy as well. On one end, I wanted to reunite with some of the amazing souls I had met in the previous editions. On the other end, I needed to reinforce the step I had taken a few months ago when I decided to go on a solo trip to Lyon, aiming to restore my faith and figuring out a plan on how to do so. The aim of a spiritual retreat is to find the ability to look inside oneself and reconsider the way one lives one’s life, in addition to understanding what needs to change.
“Nothing will be impossible for you.”
– Matthew 17:20
This was the theme for this year’s international meeting. The various activities organised by the member countries on their respective days would revolve around this particular Bible verse, encouraging the journey that we had embarked on. Every day would be organised and managed from top to bottom by two member countries. For my part, being the only member from Lebanon who could make it, I had to plan the second day of the meeting along with the members coming from Spain.
The beauty of this theme is linked to the importance of the company we surround ourselves with whenever we travel. As we also got to have a private audience with Pope Francis, he mentions an important point in relation to faith and salvation: it is always a team effort that allows us to grow mentally and spiritually together. In his words, “no one can claim to have been saved on their own, rather than through a team where everyone lifts each other up”.
As much as I enjoyed catching up with the amazing people I already knew, the experience truly became one of a kind as I got to talk with new people, share a special bond with them, learn more about their experiences as I am quite certain they have learned from mine. Even if we had just met in some cases, the feeling felt strong enough for some of us to be comfortable enough in sharing their troubles with us, as well as their toughest battles. By doing so, we would be able to find strength and hope in each other, as it meant that we saw a number of extended hands willing to help us get back up.
I am thankful for the amazing and brave hearts whom I have crossed paths with during this last week. The willingness to grow, to share, to learn, to think together is a challenge for any team at the beginning, however once the culture is properly established. In a retreat centre where we were close to 200 participants, I somehow managed to find a connection with each and every one of those present with me, whether it was in a direct or indirect manner. One amazing activity that was set in place for the entirety of this meeting involved writing small notes to other members and then placing them in a mailbox. The notes would be delivered at the end of each day to their rightful recipients, allowing for a special bond to grow even more, as the note would often consist of praise and gratitude for something that had happened between the two people.
I will be looking forward to seeing them all again in due time. Meanwhile, I will have to settle to staying in touch with them on social media. There are simply not enough words to describe how blessed of an experience these last eight days have been, surrounded by people I truly care about now and who make me feel like I am worth something.
There is this quote I once read on social media a long time which fits perfectly in order to summarise how I feel as I am writing these words:
“When my time comes, and I find myself standing in front of my God, I know that He will ask me: ‘Did you live?’ At that moment, without hesitating, I will take off my shirt, unveiling to Him the names of the people that I have loved”.
Thank you YTOL for always reminding me of the amazing people and special souls I have met along the way.
I love you all.
Until we meet again.