It’s been a little under 2 weeks since I’ve returned from Europe to my real life in Milwaukee. Laundry, cooking, work, chores, errands, bills. Real life has returned. As my mother says, my “vacation bubble” has burst.
Whenever people ask about my trip, the most common question is “What was your favorite?” It’s hard to pick one (though my least is easy!) because most places and days were my favorite for different reasons. My first Monday in Rome, Italy, because I spent two hours in St. Peter’s mostly not surrounded by crowds and went underneath the Vatican for a Scavi tour and saw the walls of the 4th century basilica, the walls and murals of the 1st century necropolis, and the burial plot (+ bones!) of St. Peter. My time in Krakow, Poland, because it was the first place I visited alone before my friend joined me, and I survived and thrived in a beautiful medieval city with such kind and proud residents. My time in Warsaw, Poland, because my friend and I witnessed firsthand the resilience of the Polish people and how beauty can come from ashes.My time in Slovenia because I never thought a place I had barely ever heard of could be so wonderful with such kind people like our host driving us to his townie restaurant which served some of the best Eastern European food I’ve ever had. My time in Split, Croatia climbing a bell tower and helping a Finnish girl who was afraid of heights make it to the top when I was afraid myself. My time in Naples, Italy, because it was so chaotic and authentic. My time in Copenhagen because it was so peaceful, calm, and beautiful.
Almost everything was my favorite. But one of my favorites of favorites was the beautiful Lake Bled at sunrise:
Nothing in these pictures are filtered or edited in the slightest. Yet, even the panoramic pictures on my camera (thanks, Google Pixel 2!) do not do this place justice. I have never seen such natural beauty like this before, and I do not if I will see anything quite like it again.
Leaving such an amazing place and being back into the regular grind, it can be hard to remember that something so beautiful ever existed. But it did, and it can be hard to see that at the bottom of the mountain.
This winter, I heard a talk about coming off the mountaintop based on a painting called The Transfiguration by Raffaello Sanzio aka Renaissance master Raphael (who the Ninja Turtle is named after). When I was in St. Peter’s, I saw it for myself:
The painting is based on the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36). Jesus is shown in his glory to his disciples, a “mountaintop moment” like when we feel extreme peace about our state in life, feel loved more than we usually do, etc. However, in both the painting, in the story, and in real life, difficulties trail not soon after. Doubts creep in. Fear sets in. Anxieties take over. The glory of the mountaintop fades into memory.
After the Transfiguration, Jesus heals a boy with a demon and has to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith. His disciples had tried to heal him without success. Jesus needs to show them who He is once again. Right after showing Himself in His glory. (Man, it must be frustrating to be God all the time!)
But what is beautiful about the painting is that the figure of Christ fits perfectly in the crowd of people. In fact, the woman in pink has her eyes set on the space where Christ fits. The disciples leave space for Him too. The scene at the bottom is chaotic and darker but there’s a spot just for Jesus. He’s needed in the chaotic, dark spots of daily life.
So, too, I am needed in my daily life. My job needs me. My family needs me. My friends need me. As wonderful as it was to be gone for 3 weeks and experience a small chunk of the world, I needed to come of the mountain. I needed to come home.
And don’t’ get me wrong: I was excited to come home. I was tired of consuming a city for its views, food, culture, etc. I was excited to contribute. I was excited to stop living out of a backpack and wash my clothes in a washer and dryer. But already, as I’m contributing again, I feel like weariness of repetition starting to set in. I think of my trip, particularly the mountaintop of Lake Bled, and yearn for the peace, freedom, and joy.
I knew when my two friends and I were on top of that mountain that I would need to come down. I would need to leave beauty for chaos. I would need to leave peace for uncertainty. I would need to come down. So, a large part of me didn’t want to leave.
What drove me off the mountaintop was hunger. (We had gotten up at 4am, didn’t eat, climbed a mountain, had some tiny snacks, and left at 6:30am. I was hungry!) Even more, it felt like time to come down. Just as it felt like it was time to leave Europe, just as it feels when it’s time to wrap up prayer, eventually there’s a tug to move along. Like Jesus, we always need to come off the mountain.
It can be hard to remember the glory of God when we’re back in the mess of daily life. It can be hard to remember God’s providential care when it does not appear He’s coming through. It can be hard to believe when our doubts, fears, and anxieties cloud our memory. It’s hard being at the base of the mountain.
But what would the mountaintop be without the bottom? What would faith be without doubt? What would joy be without pain?
One of the most important jobs in our faith life is to embrace the paradox of joy and pain, faith and doubt, etc. and see God in both. God was obviously on the mountaintop in Slovenia, but He has also been obvious in the park in Copenhagen, the depths of the excavations in Rome, and even by the riverbank in Milwaukee. God is truly present everywhere, if only we know how to find Him. He is teaching me (and I am slowly learning) to stop seeking only Him at the mountaintops in my life but to also find him in the chaotic, dark, and messy trailheads as well.
This pilgrimage to Europe felt like the beautiful ending of some kind of chapter in my life. It started right at the end of my Ignatian retreat, the Spiritual Exercises (book I used here). I was able to reflect on that spiritual journey and look forward to the future, consistently pondering what I want my life to look like.
I want my life to be one of faith, where I seek and see God everywhere.
I want my life to be one of authenticity, where I embrace the messy and disordered corners of my heart, seeing them as places for love and growth.
I want my life to be one of peace, where I cling to God amid any storm and trust in His Providence.
But most of all, I want my life to unfold as God desires. For so long, I have tried to climb my own mountains and have been looking for the best view, while the Lord has been trying to lead me to a more beautiful place. I loved Slovenia, which I had barely heard of. I strongly disliked Venice, which I thought I would love (I’ll save that rant for another day. It was not all horrible, but I need some time to be more charitable!). There were so many times were the unexpected was far more beautiful than I ever expected. And that’s what it is like in life too, if I would just give it a chance to happen.
Now, being off the mountain, it can be hard to remember those resolutions. Life on the ground level is messy, and its doubts, fears, and anxieties can take over my heart. Thankfully, I have beautiful pictures, physical and mental, to remind me of that mountaintop and the glory of God in everything.
Want to see Lake Bled at sunrise? We followed the Ojstrica hike, and this is the blog post we used to get up there!