From a bird’s eye view, Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla., presents itself in regular geometric shapes. Academic buildings constructed of burnt-red brick lie in a disciplined rectangle around the centerpiece of the campus chapel. Sidewalks branch out of every building at 45-degree angles and form intricate webs of cement—mostly so students don’t take shortcuts across the campus’s sweeping lawns. When the class bells ring, students file out of the buildings and disperse quickly in many directions. Each student knows where he is going, but the greater picture always looks like a scarcely controlled, frenzied mass.
There is a similar tension between order and chaos, direction and freedom, in our spiritual lives. We find comfort in the burnt-red, brick buildings of familiarity. We find comfort in certainty, and we find comfort in structure—our weekly Mass attendance, those friends around us who share our faith, the prayers we know by heart. Involuntarily, we spend most of our time in well-defended forts, and only the process of stepping out of these forts makes us aware of them at all. Outside the forts, on the sidewalks between classes, reigns the chaos of conflicting ideas, doubts and challenges to our faith.
At Jesuit, where most students are Christian, the standardized nature of our religion classes meant that any question of faith could be answered in short order. During my time there, I was sustained by the community, by the virtues of brotherhood and fellowship the school instilled and by the conviction that if I put in my best efforts, I would grow tremendously in my faith.
There are times, however, when I am caught in psychological and spiritual doubt, caught between classes, and yet still must play the role of defender of the faith. A year at the University of Chicago has shown me that time spent dwelling in forts is a luxury. Conversations constantly pull my thoughts into new domains, and I must defend my beliefs from nuanced, interdisciplinary perspectives. I have to draw on every scrap of religious knowledge I gathered at Jesuit. Frequently it is not enough.
At the University of Chicago, a conversation about religion quickly devolves into a mixture of business and philosophical propositions. Pros and cons are weighed, and differences in systems of logic or fundamental premises are compared with those of other religions. This is not to say that students are looking for the easiest religion to follow—far from it. Most of us follow the religion that we feel most comfortable defending, the religion that strikes us with an undeniable sense of certainty, of spiritual security and of truth.
This makes for an enormous variety of religious beliefs and interesting religious discussions, but it doesn’t often lead others toward conversion or deeper exploration of the Catholic faith. And for me, it doesn’t lead to a great deal of fulfillment or validation that I’m leading a successful Catholic public life. These interactions always leave me with questions: How does one best convey the unique and compelling spirit of the Catholic faith, and how does one instill interest in a setting where the presence of so many religions and overlapping beliefs often prevents any one faith from getting noticed in the crowd?
One of my friends who is very active in the Episcopal Church once asked me how papal infallibility is justified in Catholic literature. I confessed that I lacked detailed knowledge, but I was able to explain how papal infallibility stems from the core principles of apostolic succession and applies only to matters of faith and morals. She proceeded to tell me that the Episcopal Church believes in apostolic succession yet doesn’t also preach the doctrine of papal infallibility—so the former need not imply the latter. The discussion continued for another half hour; but looking back now, it is clear to me that I was floundering.
While I could have just returned to the dorm, read up on papal infallibility and gone back to my friend with a better answer, I realized that would only be a short-term remedy. I might be approached the very next day with a question that would leave me in a similar position. I’m left in a state of constantly accumulating knowledge of the Catholic faith yet failing to communicate the logic and beauty of these beliefs effectively to others.
One of my religion teachers at Jesuit regularly employed the well-known saying, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” And so many of my high school teachers did just that; they embodied the joy of the Gospel so well that they seemed immune to negativity. I wish I could say that I too preached the Gospel without words, but hindsight shows me I have become increasingly mired in the opposite. I have argued for the principles of the Gospel vigorously, but almost exclusively with words, and in doing so, have allowed the negativity of failure and excessive self-criticism to seep into and shape my faith life.
Earlier this year, one of my friends asked a student at the University of Chicago Law School how her experience there differed from her undergraduate and graduate experiences at Yale and Oxford. She responded that while academic convention suggests supplying students with both compliments and criticism of their work, the University of Chicago had cut out all coddling. Teachers would only criticize, hoping to impart the message that no work is perfect and that we all ought to strive for improvement.
Like my professors, I tend to evaluate myself and the progress of my faith life in an exclusively critical manner; each time I try to argue my beliefs, my faith undergoes a similar trial by fire. So often, the desire to avoid defeat becomes my motivation for improvement. The challenge for me, and, I think, many others struggling with faith internally or in the public sphere, is to forget the failures for a moment and gaze, however obliquely, upon the good in others and ourselves. More important, we need to use that good as the wellspring for growth, allowing it to fill us with the joy of the Gospel so that we may share it with the world.
It is easy to dwell on disappointments, both spiritual and academic; and for me at the University of Chicago, the struggle to meet my own expectations is a recurring fact of life. The challenge remains to view failures and shortcomings not as negative events but as opportunities. In striving to live out this lesson, I have learned that it is not just a trick of psychology or a construction of an elaborate feel-good delusion. It is a matter of perspective: viewing the loss of an argument as a breath of insight into another’s faith, and seeing my own failure as an open invitation to grow in knowledge of a faith abounding in beautiful complexity.