Catholic parents often think about how they can nurture and encourage their teenage children to mature in their knowledge and love of the Faith. There is, without question, a steady and often deceptive onslaught in the dominant culture against Catholic belief, practice, and morality. And in many ways there is no more crucial and difficult battleground than that found on university and college campuses across the country.
Aurora Griffin has recently written a book recounting many lessons that she learned as a result of her experiences at university. And not just at any university, but at Harvard, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Classics in 2014. Titled How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students (Ignatius Press, 2016), Griffin’s book is rather unique. While most books aimed at helping young Christians stay Christian while attending school have been written by parents, sociologists, or apologists, this book comes from a very recent graduate, with the ink still drying on her diploma. (Griffin was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she recently earned a graduate degree in theology.)
The insights Griffin gleaned from her experiences at Harvard provide a fresh and exciting perspective on the challenge of holding fast to one’s Catholic faith while in college.
Ms. Griffin corresponded with Catholic World Report recently via email about her new book.
CWR: When did you have the idea to write a book about your experience?
Aurora Griffin: It was Easter Sunday, 2015, and I was in the shower.
When some people hear about the book, they imagine me perched on some adirondack chair in Harvard Yard, meticulously recording my experiences into moleskin notebooks over a period of four years. That would seem more fitting, but as C.S. Lewis once said, “Reality, in fact, is not usually something you could have guessed.”
This idea came to me out of nowhere, but seized me with such fervor that I jumped out of the shower, threw on a robe, and dashed across the house to my computer. I began typing everything I could think of about the book, and a lot of it was there: the title (How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard), the subtitle, that Peter Kreeft would write the foreword, that Ignatius would publish it, and thirty-eight of the forty tips. None of these were guaranteed at the time, but it all came to pass as I envisioned it.
It was the type of idea that is so exciting that it invigorates you for all of your other projects—all of the sudden you’re working twice as much but barely noticing. I was in my first year of a Master’s degree at Oxford in Theology, so I worked on my research during the day and went to a pub at night and on weekends to write the book. I had completed a full draft by Pentecost.
I share the funny origin story of this book because it reminds me how thoroughly this is God’s project. I wasn’t planning it, and I didn’t come up with it, which means that it remains His to do what He pleases with it going forward.
CWR: Were you raised in a Catholic family? Before entering Harvard, were you in a consistently Catholic environment?
Griffin: Definitely. Judging that local Catholic schools parish programs were not robustly orthodox enough, my dad taught me himself out of the Baltimore Catechism. As a child, I could rattle off definitions of Sacraments (“outward signs of inward grace”) and of man (“a creature composed of body and soul…”). Growing up, we were busy on weekends with sports and family activities, like anyone else, but we always dropped whatever we were doing to make it to Mass on Sunday. I credit this early formation as forming the foundation of who I am today.
I actually never went to a Catholic school, even once I was older. Oaks Christian, my junior high and high school, was Protestant. This was fantastic though: my dad taught me the apologetics I needed to defend my faith against Protestant theological claims (like the time my teacher called Catholics “cannibals” in eighth grade), so it was never going to pull me away from the Church. Actually, going to a Protestant school did precisely the opposite: their Christian, moral witness showed me that the most important thing in the world was a relationship with Christ. Being around evangelicals helped me to realize the fundamental message of the Gospel in a new way, and made me a stronger Christian. Then all of the catechetical formation from my Dad made all the more sense: Catholicism helps me to be a better Christian than I otherwise could be without the resources of the Church.
CWR: The book gives 40 ways to stay Catholic at college: how important do you think the jumping-off point is? Is it easier or harder for someone who was raised Catholic to maintain that faith in college?
Griffin: In my experience, being raised Catholic was a huge advantage in keeping my faith in college. However, most of my good friends who are daily communicants came from nominally Catholic backgrounds. One way or another, they started going to weekday Mass, and that’s when they began to really grow in their faith. There comes to be a moment in everyone’s life in which he must decide for himself whether the claims of Christianity are true. Unsurprisingly, one’s own decisions seem to be a bigger factor than the decisions of others.
I will say this, though: children of parents who were hypocritical about the faith often struggled to embrace it. It’s like having parents who talk all the time about how harmful smoking and then sneak out for a cigarette. Their children see right through the inauthenticity, and it repulses them. Perhaps the most important thing for parents to do, then, is to try to be saints themselves. That’s the most attractive thing in the world.
CWR: Many of the books out there about keeping the faith in college are written by professors, parents, and so forth. What is the advantage of this book, being written by a recent college graduate?
Griffin: Every generation faces its own challenges, and this book is positioned to speak to those who are going through college in a thoroughly post-sexual revolution, and even post-Christian, country. I just did it. Yet, I remain thoroughly optimistic about our ability to witness to the faith in these circumstances because, for me, it was such a positive experience, even at Harvard.
That being said, there is nothing really current about this book insofar as it’s not proposing anything revolutionary. I’m just adding my witness to the Church’s centuries of successful saint-making. The formula—staying in the Sacraments and living a virtuous moral life—is the best way to be a saint, and to be happy, whether you’re on a college campus or anywhere else. Some people hear this and want something more off-the-beaten-path. It’s like someone asking how to lose weight: diet and exercise! It’s simple to say, hard to live, and it really works. My book is like that.
CWR: In the Introduction, you say that the book is not so much a memoir, but a guidebook with tools that were helpful to you. But some questions from your personal experience still come up for me: did you feel a lot of animosity towards religion, and your faith in particular, at Harvard?
Griffin: When my dear friend and mentor, Michael Novak, saw a first draft of the manuscript, he gave me honest feedback: “Well, this is awfully business-like for a memoir!” And I had to tell him: it’s really not about my life. Now, since then I have added in vignettes in most chapters since then to humanize the points I’m making and explain why this advice has worked in my experience. But still, it’s not really about me, personally. That has been a blessing for so many reasons for me as an author—I’ve been able to open up to students about parts of my life that God can use to show them something without my struggles and ego getting in the way.
As for what I felt at Harvard: most of the time, I was too busy to worry about people who objected to what I did and likewise, others were too busy to go too far out of their way to hurt me. I had people write up hit pieces on my work in liberal newspapers and write sassy responses to my pro-life articles in The Crimson. But my friends and I were all the targets of those kinds of criticisms at some point. We rather enjoyed it, actually. We were generally too busy to get upset about any one battle in particular, always looking forward to the next challenge.
CWR: What do you mean when you write “if you are not gaining ground, you are losing it” in regards to the idea of “staying” Catholic?
Griffin: The book title is a bit of a misnomer because we are never on our own, or in neutral. Powers unseen (Ephesian 6) are working on us to be confused, tempted, and selfish. God is reaches to us with love and forgiveness, even when we succumb to evil impulses. This is obvious, even to pagans. Take, for example, Aristotelian theories of virtue habituation: all the time, every day, we are making decisions that form our character. With good decisions, we make it easier to be good the next time, and likewise with poor decisions. Thus, we have responsibility to actively cultivate those parts of ourselves that we want to flourish. My book gives forty suggestions for how to do that, although with the recognition that we are cooperating with God’s grace.
CWR: The first category the book focuses on is Community. Why is it important, in your view and particularly your experience, to have a Catholic community while in college?
Griffin: Community is how we learn to live the virtue of charity, without which we can’t cultivate a spiritual life. The Catholic Church, the universal Church, is as diverse at Harvard as it is anywhere else. We had a lot of disagreements, but honestly, if you can recite the Creed together, you have a lot in common.
These Harvard Catholics, especially those who attended daily Mass with me, became like my family. They were not necessarily my best friends whom I saw eye to eye with on everything. Instead, they were the people with whom I had the most important beliefs in common, and so despite our differences were united. That was the closest thing to family I had in school. While a lot of people I knew were making friends with random acquaintances in their dorm or people they met at parties, I felt like I was making friends for life. In the last few years, I’m glad to say that we have remained very close.
CWR: In the section on prayer, you emphasize the way that daily prayer, whether personal or liturgical, can help to keep the faith. Prayer so easily can fall by the wayside, due to any number of excuses. Did you find it hard to just keep praying?
Griffin: I still do. In the book, I make it clear that it’s not about me getting everything right all the time. I would not hold myself up as an example of someone who prays all the time perfectly, but I do think it is achievable and that it is the most important thing we can do. I think we are all called to live prayerfully, even in the midst of the world. It would be very difficult for me personally not to pray: when I don’t get to daily Mass, you can probably tell if you see me because I’ll be cranky and less focused. If I hadn’t formed the habit of prayer during my time at Harvard, there’s no way I would have been able to take on as many responsibilities as I did without losing it.
CWR: Do you think it is necessarily harder to keep the faith at a secular college than a Catholic (at least nominally) one?
Griffin: It’s hard to compare, since I’ve never attended a Catholic school. From what I can tell, it depends on your personality. If you thrive in environments where you have to be creative, think for yourself, and fight for what you believe, then a place like Harvard might actually enrich your faith. You’re not going to just be Catholic at Harvard: you have to make a conscious choice to practice your faith. You have to make the time for it, and know the answers to the tough questions people ask about it.
I understand that this kind of pressure doesn’t appeal to a lot of people: they find it distracting or even depressing. These people might be better off at a Catholic school, where they don’t have to fight for their faith all the time. However, like I mentioned earlier, the spiritual battle is relentless. Just as going to a secular school doesn’t mean you will lose your faith, so going to a Catholic school doesn’t mean you will keep it.
I would never say that everyone should go to Harvard. For me, it was the right decision because it was where God wanted me. He had work for me to do there. However, we also need students to attend Catholic schools and cultivate thriving faith communities there. It’s matter of asking God what He wants, and then having the courage to accept the mission.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Griffin: How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard will make a great Christmas gift for your students! Just kidding. But really.
Also, I encourage parents and students who are concerned about keeping their faith in college to get in touch on the book’s social media sites. They all have slightly different charisms, and provide material that’s not in the book! I keep an eye on those accounts and answer messages, so I’d love to hear from you. It also helps me get the word out to more parents and students if you follow and re-post the content. Thank you for your help! Please keep me in your prayers.