This is the 3rd article in a summer series on the life lessons that traveling has to teach us.
Oh, Spain! You are a balm for my soul. What started as a study abroad trip in college became a spiritual journey as well, opening my mind and heart to the wonders of God through His people as well as seeing His love for me.
There was excitement in the air as I boarded the plane. Although my interest in my major of international relations was with an emphasis on developing nations, and I had hoped to study in Bogotá, Colombia, the program was pulled out due to the drug cartel situation reaching a dangerous level. So Spain it was, since my language of study was Spanish.
As we flew ever closer to our destination, my excitement grew. I was going across the Atlantic to another country, to experience another culture, one that went back to ancient times. It had a length of history I, coming from the young United States, could only imagine. I was 20 years old.
The group of people with whom I traveled in the week before we would reach Cordoba, where we would study for the semester, was from a consortium of colleges across the U.S. Some of us had come over together by plane, while others, such as my college roomie from first year Lisa, were coming from working in another country. They would meet us in Madrid for a weeklong sightseeing side trip before we all went on to Cordoba.
Together we spent our first several days in Spain taking in the sights of Madrid and Toledo, becoming one with the relaxed, easy-going culture; embracing both the night life of Madrid and its museums during the day; marveling in the white-washed buildings of Toledo that were its signature style.
Once the week was over and we got to Cordoba, we settled into daily life there. This is where I began to really experience Spain. Madrid had the feel of an international city, much like others across the world such as London and New York. A little of the culture came through, but there was a certain amount of sameness to these cities. Toledo too was not, for me, a good indication of what Spain was. It was a city made for tourism. But Cordoba, she was different.
In her ancient and diverse streets I saw how everyday Spaniards lived, experienced life that slowed down and embraced patience. Waiting in lines for an hour or more was taken in stride, a time to connect and reconnect with people in the area, to socialize. Everyone took time to enjoy life and not hurry through it like so often seems to be the case in the States. They even took a break in the middle of the day for a siesta, when all businesses closed for a few hours, before finishing their work day. Then they spent time into the night, sometimes pretty late, relaxing at cafes with friends and family. Even the children were up late partaking in the social scene. It was clear to me that people’s relationships took precedence over money and materialism.
Never was this more apparent than when I was making a purchase in a shop and was short the equivalent of two dollars. I was prepared to put my purchase back on the shelf, go back to my dormitory room, and get the correct amount of money. The shopkeeper would not hear of it and gave me the item, telling me to pay it next time I came back. I was speechless. Not only could I take the item with two dollars owed, but I could pay at my next visit, which might be several weeks. And this shopkeeper did not even know me! I was just an American student who might never show up again. (I did show up within half an hour not wanting to dishonor the trust that the shopkeeper had placed in me!)
These are examples of how being among the people of Spain lifted me spiritually, but I experienced spirituality in other ways as well. One such way was visiting the mosque-cathedral in Cordoba, La Mezquita, which was first a Christian church, then a shared Christian and Moslem structure, then rebuilt as a Moslem mosque alone, before finally becoming a cathedral. And all this was in the Jewish section of the city. Go figure.
I loved to visit the cathedral, to tour it, to see the statues, to attend Mass in it. It was enormous. A person could be in one section of the cathedral and not even know Mass was happening in another section. Each of these individual areas held a Mass that would fit in a normal-sized church here in the U.S. The size, the awesomeness, was and is indescribable. Though I had always been Catholic in name, I can say that seeing this cathedral in all its giant beauty, speaking of the splendor and power of God, is what first started me on my journey of embracing my faith for me, rather than just worshiping because It was my parents’ religion.
In addition, it was in going to Mass one early morning that I experienced what was to me a miracle that I will never forget. As I walked toward La Mezquita that dawn, I felt I was being followed and glanced back to see a man behind me some yards. Every path I took he was still with me. If I quickened my pace, he seemed to keep pace. He could have just been going my way, or he could have been following me. To this day, I cannot be sure. But being alone for most of the walk, I began to get nervous.
Finally, I reached the plaza in front of the cathedral where there were many people, some feeding the doves and pigeons in the plaza. At this point, I lost sight of the man and took a few moments to catch my breath before going into Mass. As I did so, I held out my arms to invite the friendly birds, looking for food, to perch on my arms and hands. Many flew up briefly to see if there were any tasty treats and then flew off when they saw there were none. One, however, lingered: a pure white dove. It sat on my hand, looked me in the eye, and cocked its head from side to side. I wondered why it stayed when all the others had left. Then as it sat looking at me, I felt peace and comfort come over me, a sense that I was protected, that God was looking out for me and was revealing Himself to be a Presence in my life.
Many things about Spain have stayed with me in my mind over the years: the sights and sounds, the culture of patience, the kindhearted people, the awe-inspiring cathedral and that dove of peace. What it all amounts to is a journey, certainly in a physical sense, but also, much more so, in a spiritual sense. It was the catalyst for my faith journey that has brought me to where I am today.
Alyssa Gibson is a home school teacher and a busy mother of seven. She’s also a professional dog trainer, an amateur photographer, and a green-thumbed gardener. This is her first guest blogger article.