November 4, 2010

Me at BC: An Examination of Conscience

Apparently, it's no secret that I'm not having an easy time with my interior consent to being at Boston College. On the one hand, it's been going very well; my professors have been helpful and very encouraging, I have found my fellow students to be interesting and friendly, and the libraries and their staffs have been great. But there's still a certain resistance inside; I notice it in little ways. For example, I find myself arranging my commute in ways that minimize my time on the campus and its buses. I take the long way so as to arrive at the edge of the campus where my class is held, and then leave the same way.

So what's going on with me? I've been trying to puzzle it out. Of course some it is the standard worry about Catholic colleges having given up on their Catholic identity. The mother of a prospective undergraduate recently told me about how she was totally turned off by the admissions office, which was, according to her, constantly apologizing for the Catholic nature of the school, and assuring her son that he was in no way expected to live a Catholic life while a student. Mom was horrified.

This sort of thing is old news. It concerns me, but I don't think it's quite the thing that gets to me. So I've been praying for some insight. Yesterday, while I was walking to the Chestnut Hill T station, I think my prayer was answered.

I'm a college convert. The immediate roots of my own conversion to Christianity and sacramental initiation in the Catholic Church were in the college campus, undergraduate life. And here's the trouble: I got to be a Christian, on the natural level, largely as a reaction against the experience of college. The atmosphere of material affluence was a real culture shock at the time. Yes, I had grown up with educational and cultural privilege, but without a sense or experience of the material wealth that seemed to surround me when I got to college. In the midst of it I used to think about the poor of the world or those suffering in the first war in Iraq (which was going on at the time), and I felt the sting of conscience and I began to desire a life of responsibility.

The consequence-free playground of alcohol, drugs, sex, and rock and roll soon seemed to be a false and empty liberation, especially as I became aware of its darker sides: poisonings, rapes, abortions.

Having become a metaphysical optimist through the course in Plato I took when I was still in high school, I was scandalized by a search for truth and devotion to learning that ignored or even denied the Truth Itself. Even philosophy fell short. In Philosophy 101 the professor consented, with triumphal glee, to the students' conclusion that there was no 'meaning of life,' but only 'meanings in life.' It wasn't good enough for me. I turned to religion.

From all this, then, it's easy to see how it was that I found in Catholic Christianity (and it's Franciscan expression) a suitable means for rejecting and reacting against my surroundings. I think this is the real reason I feel uncomfortable at BC; at the root of everything I've done with my adult life is an attempt to reject and find an alternative to the world of 'college.' So to be on the campus with all of the kids feels very wrong to me.

So, I beg the question. What in all this is important for me to own and protect, and what am I called to let go of? Surely I don't need to be determined by who I was when I was nineteen or twenty. On the other hand, though, I need to be true to myself. What should be kept, and what should be left? These questions must be the next, careful discernment.


Ad Abolendam said...


I'm of two minds regarding this. On the one hand, you're a graduate student. You needn't spend a lot of time on campus, and that time will lessen still as you progress in your program.

On the other hand, I felt the same way you did during much of my time in the PhD program, but my alienation stemmed the flagrant disregard for and mockery of Church teaching, authority, devotion, etc. that I found among my fellow graduate students and professors (some priests and nuns.) As a result, I shut myself off from everyone socially, and I think I only managed to further isolate myself further, and it just made me bitter.

I'm sending an e-mail your way regarding something that might be of interest to you, and might help.

Brother Charles said...

AdA: As always, you are a great encouragement and good example.

ben in denver said...

Maybe God sent you to BC to be a sign of contradiction because He loves those kids, and wants, through your ministry to spare them some of their confoundedness.

I don't expect you saw many of these kids in your parish work. College is the mission field.

Sara said...

Br. Charles,

When I talk about the person I am today, I talk about it as a natural progression of who I was at 15, and I find that most people talk about their adult selves in direct contrast to who they were and what they were doing at 15. Sometimes that's alienating.

You could say I am a product of the decisions I made as a teenager, in a way that most of my peers are not, or at least not as conspicuously.

Some of those decisions were rejections of a certain way of life that was being presented to me, but some of those decisions were positive. I wanted to be honest, brave, responsible, loving. I think I would have wanted those things anyway.

As a convert in my late 20s I know that part of what I need to let go is the sorrow and anger, because I didn't convert as a teenager, and I might have.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Thanks for the post. Good points and you may send me into depression. But....

The issue is not BC and the students that go there. Faithful Catholics know that there are some real problems with contemporary university life viz. the Gospel. Read Benedict 16's stuff on faith and reason and his talk to university professors at CUA. The issue is (at least) two-fold: what is it that Christ wants me to see in these experiences? AND, if you truly believe is Incarnate Word of God, then there is nothing --absolutely nothing-- that you can't face with the Presence of Christ in front of you.

When I start asking some very similar questions, I try to ask myself: when was the last time I really thought of Christ, that is, spent solid time in prayer?

With Christ we are asked to judge reality not according to an old mentality as the unbelievers do, but with the new one He's given.

Sure, BC's Catholicism may be very weak and some Jesuits (and other professors ) are flagrantly post-Christian, but don't be consumed by their sins.

We can buy into the temptation the devil puts in front us that goes along these lines: you are not made for greatness; happiness is not real.

On the contrary, Christ told us we are to do great things, we're made for greatness, and that happiness is given as a grace in this world in the next. Spiritual nihilism is not a Catholic approach to life!!!!

Having said all this, life is not easy.

The Capuchin witness on BC's campus opens the door to encounter Christ anew.


Robin said...

Hmmm . . . maybe I struck a chord in my own post yesterday?

I did have something of the opposite struggle, as a very (some would say extremely) liberal Presbyterian in a conservative, to my way of thinking, seminary of my own denomination.

However, I think it's important for to be aware that far more of our education and formation happens outside than inside the classroom. For me there was a challenge in that I was commuting and staying over three nights a week, so that I was not part of the week-end campus community, and then the much larger, inexpressibly larger, challenge of a family tragedy at the beginning of my second year, which turned my attention inward and toward home much more than toward seminary. My biggest regret about the institutional part of my training was that the circumstances of my life limited my community involvement.

There's no question, however, that the conversations I had and friendships I made with those whose views differ from mine are among the greatest gifts of those years. It seems to me that if your order has asked you to train yo be a scholar in your field, then developing cordial relationships and genuine friendships with colleagues whose views you questions or perhaps even condemn is an essential part of your experience.

How can we teach or preach or publish if we cannot find ways to love and care for those with whom we profoundly differ?

(Not that it's the easiest thing!)

Greg said...

Your thoughts touched on a dream I have...

I believe young people will flock to a Franciscan life, maybe not a vocation, but a secular ministry based on Franciscan charism with special emphasis on peacemaking.

(A good part of the motivation for Taming the Wolf.)

I wonder if your presence on campus does not provide opportunity for the dialogue of the type you sought when you were there...

I'm guessing you would be surprised at the number of students seeking your counsel if it appears you are available in an informal manner.

Perhaps you would have to start preaching to the birds, but then students would gather.

(If you go to and provide me with an address, I would be happy to send a complimentary copy of Taming the Wolf. The cover alone is a conversation starter...)

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time to watch the Sound of Music once again when Mother Superior tells Maria that the walls of a convent is not meant to be a place by which one hides from problems. Life's journey is a constant discernment. Perhaps your 18 year old self was led towards Fransican discernment by the excesses of university life. Lest you should get too comfortable and bask in your newfound religious fervor, perhaps your more mature self is now challenged to go back into the wolves den and take on more of a "participant's" role rather than the "observer's" role of a student. I can think of no better role model for a broken catholic institution than someone who has been there and overcome. Here I am Lord, send me.

Anonymous said...

Wherever we are sent to, God has a plan for us. Speak up your mind, God gave you the gift to do that.If they do not agree with you that is still OK, they will have something to think about.You are HIS disciple,He will always be there for you.God bless..

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! I deal with this on an every day bases at the college i minister at and I have decided that I am going to be a shinning symbol of faith knowing that most wish I would just go away! I plan on making a sign at my college that says - "Christ and college; perfect together. He is present, never absent, and refuses to drop out of our life."

Brother Charles said...

Love it, Brother!