I didn’t expect or intend for it to happen this way, but the entire narrative of my college experience so far has been one of spiritual discovery.
For most of my life I have kind of been half-atheist, half-Catholic, if that makes any kind of sense. On one hand, I was raised as a Catholic and actively participated in my Catholic Church. I went to Sunday school for eight years (remember this, it will be important later) and also read aloud from the Bible as part of Mass. At the same time, as I grew older and more educated, I started to take up liberal political stances. I was becoming liberal for the same reason a lot of young people become liberal: liberalism has a lot to do with questioning traditional sources of authority, and there’s nothing young people like to more than question authority.
It goes without saying that the Catholic Church represents one of the world’s oldest sources of authority, and here I came into conflict. Catholicism is what I was raised with, but there is energy in liberalism that I found appealing. But unlike those independent teenagers who forsake their parents’ religion and commit themselves fully to liberalism or another doctrine, my solution to this spiritual conflict was not to face it. So my soul remained in a constant state of teeter-tottering as I prepared to enter college.
Which brings us to Project Wildcat, the last lungful of fresh air before the plunge into college. Much is made on PWild of the fact that it’s “your trip,” the camping equivalent of a Rorschach test that’s unique to every person. For me, it was the first step in my collegiate spiritual journey. It had two major effects on my mental/spiritual state. It inspired me to seek out as many different activities as I could at Northwestern, in order to lead a life as fulfilling as some of the people I was meeting. But it also shattered my perception of my own rightness in regards to other people. After spending a week living, working, talking, walking, and thinking with eleven very different, very interesting people, I realized the value of alternative perspectives. I had come to believe certain things that had always seemed right to me, but here was a bunch of people who had undergone different experiences and had different ideas than me. I learned that I wasn’t necessarily right about anything, so I should work harder to learn from other people.
The introspection that goes hand-in-hand with hours of hiking eventually transformed this social realization into a religious one: “okay, I’m still befuddled by what I believe. But whether I choose to accept God or the Catholic Church or not, living by the teachings of Jesus is a good way to live. So why don’t I do that? Build from the bottom up instead of the top down? Just start with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, because that’s a good way to treat the people around you.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky had me all figured out. In The Brothers Karamazov he imbues Christianity with an energetic vitality that I needed to hear. Especially after PWild, where I met cool people with very different but very interesting life experiences, I’ve begun earnestly viewing the world through a “to each his own” lens. With a masterful interpretation of the Biblical temptation story that reverses John Milton’s Paradise Lost by making Jesus the avatar of humanist freedom rather than Satan, Dostoevsky proved that Christianity was much more aligned with personal freedom, the freedom to choose what to believe, than the liberal and socialist philosophies that had so entranced me in high school.
And while all this was going on inside of my head, I was teaching Sunday school at Sheil Catholic Center. I guess at some point in the Northwestern acceptance process, I had checked a box saying I was Catholic, and so Sheil started sending me stuff before school even started, information about orientation get-togethers and other events. These later got lost in the Wildcat Welcome shuffle, but I remembered the name when I came back from PWild ready to seize college life by reaching out and participating in as many things as I could. So when I got an email over a Sheil listserv asking for volunteers to help out with religious education on Sundays, I decided to put my name forward. This was a way to repay all those years of Sunday school, and another way to get involved in another aspect of campus life. It’s been a lot of fun, and every Sunday I walk away more confident in my religion. It might be the least time-consuming extracurricular I’m involved in, but it’s also the most fulfilling.
Interestingly, the first day that I sat down in Deering Meadow to start Brothers Karamazov was the day I got a call from the head of religious education at Sheil. That wasn’t the first time they connected. As Dostoevsky’s writing energized my thoughts toward Christianity, I brought that energy to Sheil on Sundays to help seventh grade students learn why their religion is cool. The discussions born there then helped me reinforce my own faith in a great big circle.
So that’s the story of my religious experience over the last two months or so. But it’s also the story of my college experience, because they’re one and the same. Every single thing that’s happened to me at college so far has contributed to my religion in a way that high school never did. Of course, religion is like education: you never stop doing it, and each person’s is totally different than anyone else. But there’s mine.
Read more student perspectives on spirituality.