I like to think about God. I like the idea of God. I like the bruised, vast mass of enthusiastic yet estranged believers scattered across the planet. I like the founding myths. I like the traditions and the weight of people who have come before. I like the smell of incense, and I like the hope for meaning that God brings. The things I think about God shape the choices I make, the way I love the people I love, and the self I understand myself to be. This is not a unique feeling, but it is a part of human identity that paradoxically demands to be shared and validated by others and yet also to be secreted away in the back of one’s head as the super private stuff that makes you who you are. In the world of study abroad, I think we have a pressing opportunity to delve into both the sharing and the silence.
Talk About It
Buenos Aires is a Spanish speaking city and I am not a native Spanish speaker. This means that it takes me twice as long to come out with common, uncomplicated words and phrases and about five times as long to flub my way through a complex thought – and even then, I have to wrap up with an “¿entendés?” (you get it, right?) because I can’t even remember how I started the sentence. Engaging in deep conversations in Spanish is wildly intimidating, often frustrating, and mentally taxing. I find myself lost in the matrix of building a sentence instead of using language to maneuver and deliver complex thought. As David Foster Wallace put it, “I have all these things inside me and to you they’re just words.” And yet, limited as they are, I’ve decided it’s still worth trying to find the words.
After several weeks of the basic chitchat I could handle in Spanish, my host mom and I have finally managed to dive into deep conversations and I’ve discovered that she has some striking differences of thought but a very similar idea of God. For everything we don’t have in common (language, age, nationality, political orientation…), but we both think God has endless patience for the human race. It’s been fascinating thinking about how this particular suspicion about God applies in the context of Argentina – for example, in a country that expressly forbids abortion and a belief system that finds it sinful, my host mom chooses not to offer her opinions on the subject because she hasn’t seen it as her place to offer them. Different friends with different host moms report different outcomes to conversations like this, and these conversations are helping me to approach the idea of God as a transnational entity in a way that a closed life in my piece of the U.S. wasn’t able to. Considering faith while studying abroad produces a pleasant sensation of smallness: for everything I think I know about God and religion, the world is huge and millions of people are trying to figure out their own significance within it in. Relationships to God are just as complicated as mine.
If study abroad presents a unique opportunity to share your faith, it offers an even better one to be alone with it. The nature of studying abroad makes it a solitary experience – you go with a program of strangers to a foreign country to stay with a stranger where you live without family or a long-term community for a semester in an unfamiliar culture. You don’t live on a campus or room with your best friend so you find yourself with many open, unsupervised hours of aloneness. As an extrovert, this felt at first like punishment. I already felt stranded and a little overwhelmed with all of the things I had to figure out, and now I had to be alone much of the time with the anxieties and the feeling of being strange in a strange place, and now I had to be alone much of the time with the anxieties and the feeling of being strange in a strange place
Our resident director, Mario, changed my perspective on the solitariness of study abroad by telling us a story about a month into our stay. He shared about his own study abroad experience in London and described it as the loneliest time of his life. However, he claimed that the most worthwhile moment took place one evening in which he was alone in his apartment listening to someone practice violin upstairs. It was so beautiful that he sat under the vent in the bathroom for half an hour listening to this artist unknowingly playing a private concert just for him.
Times like these are the ones to turn to God, or to just think about God, face your doubts about God, have the alone thoughts about God that you never have time to within the business of the day-to-day.
Finding God Here
If being alone and talking about God isn’t enough for you, don’t worry. Many people establish routines while abroad to create a framework for their time here by becoming regulars at churches, synagogues or mosques to actively practice their faith. I can guarantee that any Catholic will be well-taken care of because there are Catholic churches everywhere, and most denominations of Christianity can find a church with the help of Google maps. There is a substantial Jewish community in Buenos Aires, especially in the neighborhood of Recoleta, and therefore plenty of synagogues available to practicing Jews. Unfortunately, Muslims will have a hard time finding a place of worship because there are very few mosques in the city. I can only offer information about places of worship concerning these three religions, but Buenos Aires is a massive and diverse city and I suspect that other practitioners of faith will be welcomed into communities if they are willing to work to find them.
In all of the self-discovery that happens abroad, I think that this aspect is one of the most important. Across time and space, culture and language, togetherness and aloneness, God is both different and the same. I doubt anyone ever will succeed in fully figuring out God, but at least in my experience the time I’m spending abroad is getting me a little bit closer.
Bethany Catlin is an English and International Studies major at Macalester College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program, Buenos Aires in 2017. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.