I remember the night when my head hit the pillow, I shut my eyes, and the first word I said to God was, “Bonjour.”
It was about a month into my semester in the south of France, and I was starting to get impatient with myself. I’d heard that it takes about three weeks living in a foreign environment for the language to really “click,” and according to that timeline, I should have been well on my way to speaking with ease. Like a lot of things in life, it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
But, on a tired Tuesday night, that one word: bonjour. Breaking through that wall of conversation (can I call it prayer?) was not only a victory in my language progression, but also the beginning of some serious work to get the most out of those four months.
There is so much life to live on the other side of what’s easy. Press into uneasy conversations and challenges, knowing that God is with you and waiting on the other side, and one day it will become your default. When I spoke to God on my pillow, I wasn’t trying to force French out of my mouth or speak coherently for any professors who might be listening. I was just talking. Just praying.
First steps into the deep: check.
It was moments like this that I found God in France. Some were in community, like the Sunday morning I spent volunteering with a local church, Paroisse Saint-Jean-de-Malte. Each Sunday, members gather with fresh croissants, coffee, and tea to serve the homeless population. It’s all about loving the less fortunate through breakfast and some conversation.
I arrived sharply at 8 a.m., and met two nice older men who had their hands full with water jugs and a large tent. It was pretty chilly and lightly raining. Others began arriving and slipped into their familiar roles: preparing the coffee carafes, counting out tea bags, and pouring sugar cubes into styrofoam cups. I felt a little useless. I didn’t know how to be a help and I wasn’t even sure how to ask what to do.
The next thing I knew, two volunteers took my hands and we were all standing in a circle, about 20 of us. The man in charge explained how we were going to walk the streets with our breakfast trays. As he continued, I noticed people beginning to close their eyes and realized this was our prayer. I didn’t catch a clear picture of what he said, but I knew God was there in those moments—could even feel it.
On that morning, God showed up and flipped a switch in me. I could suddenly see, praying in a foreign language with foreign people to the same God, a startlingly clear picture of his majesty. Real majesty. As real as the toast you probably had for breakfast. Real like the mailman you exchange brief weather conversation with while he delivered your bills and Good Housekeeping. Real like your best friend.
We hear sermons and have conversations in coffee shops about a “big” God. But it wasn’t until I was standing outside in the rain, holding hands and bowing my head with people who (some of them) could not understand the language I grew up speaking, that I realized God is much vaster than I know. Yet he is a detailed God, as close as your heart. He may speak to you in English. He speaks to a woman in France— who eats the kind of olives you’ve never heard of and prays in a language you can’t understand.
I found a big God in the little places of held hands and French prayers. If the semester in France taught me anything, it’s that I’ve seen so much and almost nothing at the same time.
France put a new face to Isaiah 55:8-9, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
Sarah Shearer is a nonfiction writing and French major at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent four months with the study abroad organization CEA in Aix-en- Provence, France, at Aix-Marseille Université.