|01-07-2012 - Traces, n. 7
ATTACHED TO SOMETHING PRESENT
A place of "honest conversation" has given rise to a burgeoning community of young Canadians in search of the truth, culminating in a vacation marked by a newness that changes lives. Fifty university students, fifty stories, one friendship...
BY FRANCESCA AND GABRIELLA SILANO
Anton Sylchenko was uneasy about going on the CL University students (CLU) vacation with his friends from Toronto. Having attended School of Community occasionally a few times in his first year of university, he was considering not attending anymore. On the first night of the vacation–whose theme was "It is No Longer I Who Live, But Christ Who Lives in Me"–John Zucchi, the National Coordinator of the CLU, began his introduction with a question that Anton had casually posed at dinner: "Having all this free time, I find it paralyzing. I want to move, but I don't know where to start from." John seized on Anton's words, reminding the 50 students from Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal that the unease we often feel can either become an excuse to live on "autopilot" or the opportunity to grow in self-awareness. He concluded with the reminder that everything about to happen on the vacation was unknown to them. "We don't know how Christ will hit us," he said, "but the thing is to stand before what is happening." Boy, was he right!
After four days in Val David, after the incredible games, hike, moving presentations, and hours of free time spent with friends old and new, Anton stood up to speak in the final assembly, leaving everyone awestruck. "I really didn't know what I was living before," he said, "but I know that I did not like it. This whole time, I have been focusing on what I'm not. But here, people accept me as I am." John's response indicated that what he had told the students four days before had proven true. "The event comes along a different path," he said. "We do not generate this Presence–He enters as He wishes." When such newness enters, he explained, it is simple to follow. This word, "newness," describes what we have seen happening in Toronto over the past year and particularly in the months since the vacation.
AN ERUPTION OF DESIRE. The CLU in Toronto was founded in 2008 when Elyssa Orta Convey, who had met the Movement in Montreal, asked a few friends to help her begin doing School of Community. The next year, the CLU grew to about 20 members as a number of students who had been in GS graduated. This growth, however, came with its own difficulties. There was a large age gap between the two "cohorts," and, as many remember it, there existed a certain lack of both a sense of friendship and of freedom in their School of Community.
Fr. Carrón's insistence that life is "a journey, not a miracle" has been proven in the experience of the CLU, for there was no singular event that led to a drastic change amongst them. Rather, there has been a growing awareness of a friendship, an awareness that became particularly strong after many of them traveled to World Youth Day and the Meeting of Rimini together last summer. Many of the same difficulties remained, but they saw an eruption of desire to live all year round as they had in the summer. Over time, a sense of belonging grew among these friends, manifesting itself in the most unexpected people and in the most unexpected ways: there was a new excitement, a new gusto in living. Perhaps the greatest witness to this newness is in the many new friends who have joined the CLU in the past year.
After meeting the Movement, Anton invited two of his closest friends from high school. Julia Pariselli came to Beginning Day and was instantly "drawn to the gaze that these people had." In the next few months, she regularly attended School of Community. In her words: "It's a simple comparison, really: this makes me happier. Before I followed 'Catholic actions,' but I never asked why or what they meant. Now, I understand that it is a Person I'm following." She says that her understanding of faith has changed: "I am becoming part of this carnal body. I see a life here and I understand that this Companionship is His Flesh. Charity is no longer something abstract, but a Face." Their friend Jude Farjami talks about finding himself on the vacation just five days after his first School of Community: "I didn't know what the community of the Church was before–I was really alone." Even though his life was "good" before, he felt isolated and apathetic. His encounter with the Movement transformed his daily routine, and this tension became most apparent at his work: "I now look at work as a gift, something no longer about just making money. It has become an opportunity to ask, 'Why am I here?'" This novelty draws him back to School of Community each week: "For me, there's something else here. It's like the vacation–it's not four amazing days that we look back at with nostalgia. It's now. Everyone comes to these meetings and brings their whole being to the table, and I begin to ask, 'Who are You?'" In this assertion, he clarifies John Zucchi's insistence at the vacation: "Following is so simple and it corresponds so much that we should attach ourselves. It would be going against yourself to not follow."
A PERSISTENT INVITATION. Jude's observation that this newness is not limited to the vacation can be seen in the witnesses of friends who have met the CLU since then. Artur Tsurkan's first year of university proved to be both isolating and disorienting. He found that his best friend (Anton) had faced an identical sense of abandonment. In spite of all the frustrations, confusion, and despair, Anton persisted in inviting Artur to School of Community, saying, "I don't know why I invited Artur. He came to me at a time when I was seriously considering leaving CLU." Artur has been attending School of Community for a month: "I'm open to the possibility that CL will satisfy my need for an honest conversation." Alyssa Hollander met some of the members of CLU at her best friend Gianna's birthday party: "I can't put a word to what I saw. The way I was included, it seemed as if the people there actually wanted to know me. I'd never had that experience before, where I felt so comfortable and at ease. Only later did I find out that the group was a religious one." Alyssa was used to people defining her by her struggles with addiction: "I don't really get that love or acceptance at home or in any support groups. In those places, I cannot be me and still be loved. So for people to see my faults and to say, 'So what?' is something new and important." Drawn by this, she returns weekly: "I come back so that I can one day look at someone and have that gaze you guys talk about. I want to be able to love myself. This is the greatest gift of this group: recognizing what He has given me. CLU doesn't focus on teaching me how to find Christ. It is a group of honest people getting together and asking questions. And in that honesty they point me to Christ."
"I AM ACTUALLY HERE." Ashley Lawlor also highlights the uniqueness of their unity, recalling that in her first year of university most of her friends moved away, and she found herself struggling to find new friends. "My relationships seemed shallow and in my prayers I started to ask God for a friendship in Christ. Then, at School of Community, every time someone spoke it was as if they had pried into my innermost being and plucked out the words hidden there. Their questions were my questions." Catherine Chen, who has been in CLU Toronto since its inception, is surprised by the change she is seeing in her friends and in herself: "I see this evolution, I see how this friendship has become a point of reference for many of us. There is a sincerity, a need to face all of our challenges (work, relationships, study) together. This is definitely the work of Something present among us all, and even if they cannot define it, the newer members recognize this too."
Anton still struggles with how to manage his free time but the uncertainty no longer weighs down on him; he is no longer defined by what he doesn't accomplish in one day: "There's no lack in my time now; time is no longer against me–I feel like I'm actually here. I was embraced fully and loved fully and nothing will ever change that." This is his starting point for everything: "The intensity that I lived at the vacation would be pointless if it was something that just happened with CL. I remember going to work after one of my four-day 'CL binges,' and it was as if I was seeing my coworkers (whom I had been working with for almost a year) for the first time. I had never been so interested in their lives... For the first time ever, I could actually relate to them, almost by no effort of my own. This newness came out of nowhere." And his relationship with his parents changed: "In front of them now, I see myself praying, 'I want to embrace you the way that I've been embraced.' And this has practical consequences: I even have an impetus to do the dishes, because I want to be attentive to the real need in front of me."
On the vacation, after Catherine gave a testimony about the change in her life over the past year, John's response seemed to capture not only her experience, but the experience of the CLU as a whole: "We all come here with our old ways, but there's something new being introduced that makes things come alive. It's simple: either you embrace this newness, or you keep going your own way. The question is, 'Do we want to follow?' It's not an intellectual decision; it's following a tenderness."