Priming the Pump
First, a bit of disclaimer. A primer is not meant to be all encompassing or carry a point as deep as possible. The main purpose is to be a healthy and solid start or place of refreshment. In this case, an introduction to college life and maintaining a relationship with Christ in college.
I’ve written this as a way of helping to alleviate the numbers of collegiate Catholics who leave Christ and the Faith during their college years. The opportunities to grow in either virtue or sin are numerous, even on major Catholic university campuses, so students must be conscious of their path in college, both academically and spiritually.
The order of this primer is written consciously. Disorder in our efforts is as undermining to our spiritual well-being as disorder in our desires. Begin all things in Christ.
Primacy of Christ
The majority of college freshmen enter the university system with little concrete plans for their future. Most will change their majors several times in their search to find themselves and their life’s purpose. This seeking extends into their social lives as well. At the heart of all our searching is the basic human desire to be loved and to love. This is crafted into our very being by our Creator. Resisting the impulse to love well creates a cold and calloused heart and without Christ we will likely delve into sin to slack our thirst for love, for Him who is Love Itself. He alone fulfills your heart’s desire to love and be loved.
Remember that you were forged out of Love for love not endless pleasure, though pleasure is good for it was made by God. Or, as Benedict XVI said, “The world offers you comfort. But, you were made for greatness not comfort.” Campus offers many comforts, some good, some bad. The sheer number of options is overwhelming. To sort through the options, you must have a firm foundation—a guiding light that illuminates everything and acts as a point of reference going forward and for refreshment. That foundation is Christ and His love for you. Remember this above all else, you are loved by your Creator in your virtue and your sin, and He is forever seeking you and calling you to Himself. In that relationship is your lasting joy and happiness through all suffering and the fulfillment of all earthly gladness.
We were created for community so it is good that you will seek a community and friendships in college. Friends, mentors, romance, social events, classmates, professors, RAs, church, and the list goes on. Be bold and create holy relationships. To ensure the health of your soul be sure you are grounded in Christ so that each of your relationships are rooted in virtue and not vice. Vice is always fun during but the moment that time is over regret, shame, doubt and self-loathing set in. When these moments come remember, God loves you and wants you to return to Him. Do not listen to the lie of the Evil One that your actions make you unworthy of God’s love. When we forget or ignore God’s love we will seek acceptance and love elsewhere often misusing people and things, furthering our suffering.
Discipline in Prayer and the Sacramental Life
If you want a healthy relationship with Christ learn to pray. I mean two things by this—
The first and more important is to understand prayer and lived faith is an act of the will not simply words. A conscious choice acted upon and not merely ‘good intentions’. Prayer is a relationship with God. He has much to whisper into your heart. Any healthy human relationship does not have one person capitalizing the conversation. Let God speak (He usually speaks in silence, by the way ,1 Kings 19: 11-14). Second, in order for a relationship to thrive there must be priority and time given. Mass is paramount but one hour a week with God is not enough for our souls. Could you imagine any human relationship sustaining on one hour of contact per week? Time is a finite, irreplaceable resource. Show me where you spend your time and I’ll show you where your priorities are.
God gave us the means for a healthy soul, the sacraments of the Church. Frequent the sacraments to nourish your soul. The Eucharist, Confession, and prayer breathe life into your soul and act as medicine against sin and vice. Yes, God grants extraordinary grace at His discretion but His discretion also includes clear avenues of grace.
Developing your prayer life will take time and will almost certainly include a few false starts and stalls. Do not be troubled. Each of us must renew our commitment to Christ daily. Some days are better than others. To begin, start small. Praying the Morning Offering, five to ten minutes of meditation on Scripture (The Bible is God’s living voice so read it to know His voice.), or something similar. Begin and end each day in Christ, no matter how the day went. Learn to accept prayer as it comes (since prayer is a response to grace): exciting, deep, dull, boring, fulfilling. Eternity is time with Him so let us practice eternity here in prayer and the liturgy.
Friendship in Christ
A speaker once explained to an audience that between the ages of 18-25 the average person will accept the identity that others affirm in them, most likely forever. Therefore, in college if others identify you with partying, work, Greek life, academics, or anything else besides Christ you will probably carry that identity after college. For college students, two main difficulties are present: their identities (or fulfillment) have a chance to focus on either sinfulness (drunkenness, lust, etc) or transitory activities (Greek life, academic life, social events, etc) rather than on He who transcends time and place yet remains in our day-to-day lives. What identity will you claim once college is over?
Friendships guide much of our activity before, during, and after college. Friends who lead you into sinfulness on a regular basis are not leading you to Christ. Be wary, you may have to step back from those individuals for a time. Campus ministers and college chaplains have noted that friends, for better or worse, are often the deciding factor in whether individuals remain in the faith through college. Even if you are meeting people at a Catholic student center or local parish near campus there is no guarantee they will lead you to Christ. As before, this must be an act of the will, a conscious choice that you and others desire Christ, virtue, and Heaven: primacy of Christ.
After involvement at several campus student centers, I have learned two things to keep in mind. First, if your friendships or the ministries at the student center are not Christ centered you’re just hanging out like any other group on campus. Second, if you or the ministries develop a Catholic Bubble/Jacuzzi environment or focus on ‘feeding’ each other rather than evangelizing your prayer and liturgy will become warped and inward gazing. The Church exists in tandem for two missions: 1) as a field hospital for Her children on their earthly pilgrimage, 2) to spread the Gospel and bring more souls to the Divine Physician. Take away: always keep the primacy of Christ and evangelize.
Depending on your campus, finding companions may be quite easy or fraught with difficulty. In either case, friendship is paramount. Many saints grew in holiness with siblings and friends who also sought holiness. And that, in the end, is your goal, sainthood. Heaven is what you were made for and Heaven is home to saints. Be a saint. Remember, iron sharpens iron not iron sharpens a sponge.
You will not remain in college forever (hopefully). You and your companions must prepare each other for the world. Grow strong in Christ, strengthen the weak, and be ready to live for Christ in a world that does not know Him. Your friendships are a point of evangelization because we all naturally seek friendship and community. Friendships grounded in Christ are a means to bring others to Christ. So, have fun, be joyful in Christ.
Grow in Knowledge and Wisdom
I have placed studying of the faith last for two reasons. First, the Church is Christ’s Church and its depths of wisdom and knowledge are vast as the oceans. She is a veritable theological and philosophical playground for your mind. However, studying Her can become an end unto itself rather than as part of your journey with Christ. Second, examining the difficult questions of faith is always easier after you’ve developed a prayer life and are consciously attempting to grow closer to Christ.
Hunt in fertile grounds. College is largely what you make it. Wherever you are the experiences you have are your choice and your responsibility. This includes your intellectual pursuits. College often presents challenges to belief without your knowledge. A professor makes a comment here, a course has an off-putting reading there, and then a hard question presents itself. When this occurs do not run. Accept that there are hard and good questions about faith. St. Thomas Aquinas has whole works that delve into the hard questions, even God’s existence. Doubt is only unhealthy if we ignore it or take it as fact. Receive that doubt, offer it to God, and ask for His guidance in study. The Church’s history is 2,000 years and counting. Someone at some point has faced similar struggles and received consolation. If you’re unsure of where to proceed there are resources below to get you started. Find a solid priest, mentor, or knowledgeable friend to help you along the way. When you engage challenges, your intellect and faith grow.
If you hear nothing else hear this. God loves you. He created you with all of your idiosyncrasies and quirks. You’re here because he knit you in your mother’s womb. Don’t let the world trick you with its false gospel of worth based on contribution or categorization. God asks for nothing in return but the most important thing in life: love with all your mind, body, and soul. The degree to which our hearts are ordered in Christ is the degree our earthly loves are rightly ordered. Good luck and God bless.
A brief list of authors and works
-The Bible (get a good translation: New American Bible, RSV, Douai-Rheims, Knox Bible)
-Anything by Peter Kreeft
–Reasons to Believe by Scott Hahn (any of his works)
–Disorientation: How to Go to College without Losing Your Mind edited by John Zmirak
-Patrick Madrid has many easy to read apologetics works
-C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (let your soul explore as much as your mind)
-Fr. Ronald Knox (he has several works and was chaplain at Oxford when the Holy See supported Catholic students returning to Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s)
–Catechism of the Catholic Church (an easy, must have reference)
-Christopher West’s Theology of the Body works are usually solid for questions of human sexuality.
–The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (a solid choice for anyone for prayer).
–Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
-Anything from the Catholic Answers apostolate, Ascension Press, Sophia Institute Press
-Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Ministries
–The Fathers Know Best: The Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church edited by Jimmy Akin