College and the Church can be…oof.
That’s a sad reality, a tough reality, but let’s call it what it is: a lot of the experiences offered and knowledge presented to us create some degree of friction with the practices and teachings of the Church. Not all of it, of course!–but a good deal.
And this isn’t exclusive to college–that’s important to note. A lot of the experiences and knowledge of the world itself, fallen and broken, create some degree of friction with the Church. College is just our current context for that friction. It is the environment in which we are.
I want to tell you a story. It’s an amazing story, but in order for it to be amazing, we’ve gotta start with a bad story.
In my first year at the University of Chicago, I was put in a temporary dorm–Broadview Hall, almost a mile away from campus. It was a retired hotel in which us lucky first-years were holed up as Campus North Residential Commons (audience: oooh!) were constructed. Some griped, but I loved it. I had a single dorm with my own bathroom, there was always breakfast in the fridge downstairs and a rickety elevator that broke every other day.
I was in Room 527. Across the hall, in Room 524, was a young woman who we will call…Hannah. Hannah and I were both first years, so we went through the glorious rigmarole of orientation week together. Obviously, there were a ton of first-years with us, but Hannah was aggressively outgoing and friendly. For those of you who know me, I’m also socially…exuberant. So we chilled and had a good time.
Hannah was obsessed with trains. Every time we rode Chicago’s L into the city, she was over the moon. Her room, across the hall from mine, faced east–you could only see buildings. My room faced the Metra line.
When Hannah discovered this, she immediately asked if she could come study in my room so she could also watch the trains. I mean, I was down. Hannah was super entertaining and was struggling to make any solid friendships early on, so I figured it was a good thing to do.
And then one day, Hannah asked me about the ‘pictures’ on top of my fridge. They were my icons.
I don’t know if I thought we could have avoided the topic entirely, somehow–or maybe, naive as a first-year, I imagined the conversation going far easier in my head. You see, Hannah had made it very clear from the first day of orientation that she had strong views on a ton of tough contemporary issues–and I knew those views would put her at odds with a lot of the Church’s teachings.
So she asked me about the pictures; I told her they were icons and that I was an Orthodox Christian. So, she asked me what that meant, what I believed, and so on. As best as I could at the time, I tried to communicate the Orthodox views in a sympathetic and non-confrontational manner, also asserting that I wasn’t nearly the ideal source for some of these difficult questions.
Hannah left my dorm room and never spoke to me again. She would up and leave tables if I sat down at them for a while, though she stopped with that eventually. Still, she hasn’t said a word.
Now, obviously, Hannah is an extreme case. As I said, she was a little socially awkward, so I don’t think she was adequately equipped to handle such a situation. But that experience soured me–hard–on how college and the Church interfaced. Reading through Genesis and St. Augustine and Dante across my first year of school, and hearing all of the…different interpretations thereof, didn’t help either.
But fast-forward to the amazing part of the story: right now, in my third-year at college. I’m taking a Russian Civics class, and the second week has been all about the varying religious and cultural beliefs of the Slavic regions, and the eventual onset of Christianity and precipitation into one giant big ole Russia.
I mentioned during a comment in class that I’m Russian Orthodox. Since then, my professor–who won’t stop calling me Sam incidentally–has turned to me multiple times for my input on comments he makes or to help answer questions from students. I passed my cross around class so folks could look at it–I modeled what the three-bar cross looks like, because it was on the frocket of my AV Male Staff 2017 shirt (shoutout AV Male Staff 2017).
I had this awesome experience of Christianity in college. Just rad and a half. I got to stand there and explain what I believe, field questions, and make clarifications to a group of people that–for the most part–seemed interested in and respectful of what I was saying. And it was so dope.
Maybe to them I was just a peculiar echo of a long-passed novelty; someone clinging to silly beliefs. If that’s their judgment, that’s okay. College has always been a place for me where my faith isn’t treated with respect or as legitimate. But last week, that changed a little bit–I got a taste of the greener grass on the other side.
We always hear about the persecuted fathers of the Church–of St. Paul getting scorned and stoned and chased out of town for trying to live, unashamedly, a good and holy and just life.
And we remember St. Paul and the church fathers, not only because they went through this, but because they weren’t embittered, jaded, worn down, or defeated. They remained thankful (#GloryToGod), resilient, faithful, and humble.
I had written off college, I think. I’d encourage you to avoid a similar trap. The world has beauty if we don’t dull our eyes and relinquish our efforts in finding it, and every once in awhile, someone out there has ears to hear.