Embarking on an Interior Voyage | MAGIS - WYD Lisbon 2023
In the overview of my World Youth Day experience, I mentioned how the week of the MAGIS experiments wrecked me. In this second installment, I will explore this portion of my pilgrimage in depth, with the hopes that my struggles may somehow help you to face your own - hopefully with less drama and agony.
As I left Vila MAGIS in Lisbon for Santo Tirso, I only hoped to capture beautiful images, and maybe make a lovely video. I may also have subconsciously hoped to form close relationships with at least a couple of people from different continents, but I don’t think I allowed myself to entertain the thought consciously. Close relationships always mean feelings and imperfection, disappointment and vulnerability - all things opposed to my cool, almost stoic exterior. Though the introductory meeting held the day before departure had left me genuinely impressed by the sheer talent and dedication of my group members, I still would not allow myself to expect much from the upcoming experience. The only real relationship I allowed myself to make an effort towards was with the cold, hard, unchanging camera.
The weapon of companionship
As it happens, one of the core pillars of MAGIS is companionship, and so a brush with people and all their wonderful quirks and imperfections was inevitable. I shared a room with three other ladies - a fellow Zimbabwean named Cecilia (Cece) and two lovely Singaporeans named Joanna and Elaine. Cecilia’s softness and lightheartedness, coupled with the unmatched kindness and generosity of Joanna and Elaine, became the gentle double-flame that would begin the process of thawing my frozen heart. Little did I know that Marielle, our group coordinator in charge of the week’s drama exercises, would effectively shatter the ice in one, swift blow, and on the first day of the drama exercises too!
The first portion of the exercise started rather silly. We were in the gym, and Marielle instructed us to reenact our individual behaviour and character when we were two years old. I couldn’t remember much about myself at that age, except that I was a chubby baby. I found this exercise to be particularly challenging, and so I resorted to watching others. When this proved ineffective - I was laughing more than I was acting - I decided to shut everyone out and just simply act out what I thought I might have done at that age. I jumped on some mattresses like they were a trampoline and climbed a ladder as if it were a tree. These aren’t exactly the activities of a two-year-old, but it sufficed. I got through the exercise feeling a deep discomfort and counting the seconds to lunch.
The second portion of the exercise took us to the theatre. Here, Marielle taught us how to be effective clowns. As a professional clown herself, she explained that clowns take a small task and exaggerate its difficulty. Something as simple as pouring a cup of tea could end up causing so much chaos and laughter because of the clown’s interpretation of the task. Marielle also explained that clowns are generally very sad people who hide it by making other people laugh. Things can spin out of control very quickly when a clown is around, much like when a toddler is around.
It must be at this point that I instinctively zoned out. The deep discomfort I felt in the first half was bubbling up my esophagus and threatening to burst through my eyes if I didn’t reign it in. I vaguely remember the connection she made to our early relationships as kids, having unfiltered emotion and God loving us through all that. All I could concentrate on was keeping my tears at bay. For the life of me I could not understand why I was about to cry. And that frustrated me even more. The more I tried to control the emotion, the more pressure I felt on my chest.
It started as a trickle, then a downpour, and eventually a torrent of tears. Try as I might, I could not stop the waterworks. I removed myself from the group, went backstage and gave myself a stern talking to. Why the heck are you crying? What’s with the drama? Do you like embarrassing yourself? This is not ladylike. Control yourself. You’re acting weak right now. You’re supposed to be tough as teak. Wipe your tears. Go back. Show them you’re in control. But none of it worked. It was as if my eyes had a mind of their own.
Margot, a Belgian psychologist who was in charge of our spiritual exercises, followed me backstage and did the most abominable thing. She rubbed my back to comfort me. Do you not know, dear Margot, that rubbing someone’s back when they are crying only makes it worse? Any hope I had of stopping the overflow was gone now. We must have stood there for about five minutes, but it felt much longer for me. Eventually, she had to leave me and rejoin the group, but not before letting me know that I had the freedom of excusing myself from the exercise, and that if I wanted to talk, I coud book a session with her on the accompaniment roster. I only worked up the courage to do so two days later, after having dissected the event myself. She confirmed a couple of my suspicions, and brought a ton of insight into the whole situation.
Some key relationships in my early development left me believing that I was only worthy of love if I was perfect. Jesus’ charge to “be holy, as the Father is holy” seemed to reinforce this idea. And so, knowingly and unknowingly, I had set out to only do things that I could do perfectly, and only show up in the world when I could guarantee that my participation would be perfect. It’s no surprise, then, that I have done less than a handful of things and have participated only in society’s most controlled environments. Though this has helped me avoid a lot of drama and disappointment, it has also left my life hollow and meaningless, as evidenced by the constant seasons of depression peppered across my time on earth. Additionally, I am more compassionate and forgiving of other people’s imperfection; however, because of my own struggle with loving myself despite my flaws, I have thus far been unable to truly love other people. A struggle I now lay at the foot of the cross.
Acting like a two-year-old left me feeling uncomfortable because it reminded me of a time when I wasn’t in control. Somehow, even then, I felt like I was expected to be in control. And when the world seemed to be falling apart and my family was going through a rough patch, I somehow thought it was because of my sin, my imperfection. Talking through some of this deep-seeded guilt helped a great deal, but I knew that the real work would begin after my pilgrimage. I was not wrong.
Being back home and adjusting to the drudgery of daily life is as difficult as I expected it to be. Here, I am in charge of my own schedule, and cannot rely on the escape and excitement that MAGIS and WYD provided. I must come to terms with the mistakes I have already made, and the ones that I will inevitably make in the future. Before going to Portugal, I was crippled by inaction for fear of making the wrong step. After my return, I am desperately trying to step out in faith anyway, knowing full well that I’m likely going to make a mess of things. My friend, Danai, recently gave me a pep talk about this. She reminded me that I had to let go of everything and let God be the one in control. It makes sense, doesn’t it, what with my obssessive need for perfection. Only God is perfect, so only God gets to be in charge.
I may struggle with perfectionism for the rest of my life, but my hope is that I will remember the lessons of this fateful week - the ones I’ve outlined here and the ones I haven’t the space nor the courage to share. May God protect me from myself and teach me true perfection and true holiness, so I may finally love as He loves.
7 September 2023