Gaining the world, keeping your soul
Acton Institute Powerblog

Gaining the world, keeping your soul

Recently, Ross Douthat gave a talk at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto on the question, “Can You Be a Harvard Catholic?”

The Harvard grad and New York Times columnist said he has always found religion to be a personal and professional asset to his career, not a hindrance. He mused that this may be particularly the case because of his distinctive path as a journalist. “Weirdness is good,” he said. “It connects you to the mass of human history and contemporary humanity. Especially in college, why would you want to have the patterns of thought and the same assumptions that everyone else has?”

Douthat proposed that the ‘Harvard Catholic’ has more to draw on, more exposure, and more to contemplate than secular Westerners. “Having a better ground than what’s on TV isn’t easy but it’s sort of a gift,” he said.

When it comes to the challenges of keeping the faith on campus, Douthat considers these to be more personal than intellectual. “Is frantic, strenuous ambition the Christian goal?” he asked. “The Ivy League lifestyle doesn’t challenge the faith intellectually so much but it challenges it in the sense that it says immediate, material succeeding and winning is what counts.”

“Harvard taught me that competition and success matter most. It didn’t teach me that God doesn’t exist or that miracles don’t happen,” Douthat began. “This was the deeper challenge, the challenge to a soul’s values and priorities.” He discussed a person’s 20s and 30s as the period of life during which it is convenient to postpone the eternal questions of the soul. While marriage and children bring a person to necessary consideration of mortality and making a gift of self, meritocratic culture can imply postponing those things.

He shared that coming face to face with one’s mortality can “bring home the truth that most college students don’t grasp – you won’t live forever, or maybe you will but it won’t be in this context but with God. Most secular life is built on the denial or suppression of those realities and questions. But when those things disappear, then what?”

During Q&A I mentioned that my friends and I tend to be constantly asked by others, “What’s next?” Most of us would prefer to be asked about the present. Answering the “What’s next?” question often results in postponing the questions of the soul due to meritocratic conventions. How can students who are trying not to settle for less than the spiritual grandeur of a life of faith give witness to their concern with the questions of the soul?

Douthat’s immediate reply: “Well, you could say, ‘I’m gonna found a religious community!'” he said with a laugh.

He then discussed three counter-cultural ways for young Catholics to offer this witness and give life to cultural renewal. These include: community, family, and celibacy. His encouragement was to focus on these as counter-cultural goals and, at the same time, avoid romanticizing them.

Another Harvard grad, Aurora Griffin, has just released a book called How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students. Griffin agrees with Douthat that her Catholic faith has been an asset, not a detriment to the university experience: “I have found that faith doesn’t take away from the rest of life: it gives it meaning.”

Also a Rhodes Scholar, Griffin recounts in the book an icebreaker activity during which the American scholars were asked to sit in a circle and say something “vulnerable” about themselves. She chose to say, “I am a Roman Catholic who believes all the teachings of the Church. My faith helps me to love people with whom I disagree more than I otherwise would.”

To whatever obstacles – be they intellectual or moral – a person faces in living the faith on campus, Griffin recommends a banquet of Christian practices from which students can choose. To the classical spiritual practices, she offers contemporary anecdotes and some fresh, faith-filled interpretation. From spiritual reading and writing, to seeking out good literature, to living the liturgical year and Sundays well, this book offers inviting and encouraging tips.

These are some of the countless ways to, as St. Josemaria put it, ” ‘materialise’ [our] spiritual life”. He stressed: “God is calling you to serve Him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us every day, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it. […] There is no other way. Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him.”

Ambitious souls are called to use their gifts: “[…If] service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:7-8)

Amanda Achtman

Amanda Achtman is a graduate student in the John Paul II Philosophical Studies program at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland.