When we go off to college, we’re not yet adults but no longer children, and we’re often on our own for the first time. No more bells ringing between classes, the everyday routines of high school are behind us. Our parents aren’t around to wake us up in the morning—or to set a curfew. For the most part we’re responsible for and to ourselves.
Therein lies opportunity and peril. College is a time when we can take full, adult possession of our faith, and it’s also a time when it can slip away, either because of neglect, or intellectual challenges we’re unprepared to meet, or because we find ourselves swept up into the comfortable hedonism that tends to dominate the undergraduate culture of most American colleges.
What to do?
The most important piece of advice I can give: don’t put your spiritual life on hold! During your first semester of college there are many new people to meet, as well as new experiences to have, and fascinating ideas to entertain. That’s as it should be. But it’s easy to get swept up into all this and say, “I don’t have time, but I’ll get back to my faith someday.”
Someday needs to be now. Start with worship. Faith is not a do-it-yourself project. We need to participate in the sacraments. If you want to get run over by a train, you need to put yourself in its way. That same holds for God’s grace. For Catholics, attending Mass daily and regular confession is like going to the gym. We can’t stay spiritually fit unless we’re willing to commit the time. That holds true for Protestants as well, and different traditions prescribe different ways to give time to God every day.
For nearly everyone, college is a time of introspection and self-examination. What do I believe? What do I want to do with my life? What about love, sex, and marriage? It’s important that we ask these questions in the company of Christ. That requires a discipline of our interior lives to complement regular church attendance.
The spiritual writers identify three ways to make Christ more present to us in our daily lives: prayer, mortification, and charity. Prayer is a no-brainer. How can God talk to you if you’re not listening? Listening involves disposing ourselves internally toward God. We need to approach Him, as it were, which involves petitions and requests for illumination.
Mortification sounds intimidating and vaguely medieval. But the concept is easy to understand. For most of us the most important person in our lives is . . . me. In order to draw closer to Christ, we need to learn how to set aside our preoccupation with ourselves, which is another way of saying we need to practice self-denial. It’s not easy, and the great spiritual writers urge us to train our wills in self-denial. This need not involve grand gestures. In fact, that can be a danger, because we can become very proud of our mortifications—which is the very opposite of self-denial!
Therefore, the best approach is to make small sacrifices. Make a vow to wake up and go to breakfast every morning, even if your first class isn’t until 11 a.m. Choose a plain cheese pizza rather than pepperoni. You’ll be surprised how these tiny sacrifices work an interior magic, shifting your focus every so slightly away from yourself. Once you’re a little bit to the side, God can come to the center.
The final way of interior union with Christ involves charity. Christ gave himself for us on the cross. The slightest gift we give to others—a sympathetic ear, making time during exam week, calling your parents (and not texting!)—these acts participate in Christ’s cross, and thus in a small but real way unify us with him. And of course making time once a week or once a month to participate in a program that serves those in need does the same, with the added grace of fulfilling Christ’s commands to do the corporal works of mercy (Matthew 25).
I’ve emphasized sacramental and interior spiritual disciplines because I’m convinced that they provide the surest foundations for faith. We all face challenges and temptations in our lives, and that’s especially true for college students in academic environments often hostile to faith—and in dorm cultures hostile to even the most basic forms of moral rectitude. Our good ideas and pious intentions will be swept aside unless they are deeply rooted in our souls.
However, college students should keep some other things in mind.
First, we’re strongly influenced by the company we keep, and therefore we should seek the fellowship of other believers. The modern university is something of a fraternity for secularism. This is often true of Catholic universities, in spite of their best efforts. Nearly all colleges and universities have ministries that provide opportunities to connect and join fraternities of faith. Be sure you do so.
Second, find good mentors. This can be a priest or a pastor, but don’t limit yourself. Your college years have an academic focus, and ideally your intellectual development won’t be a separate compartment of your life, but will instead contribute to your maturity in faith. So it’s very helpful to have a mentor from inside the academic culture: a professor, perhaps, or a graduate student. Someone who has walked the path can help you find your way.
Third and finally, Pope Benedict refers to the books in his personal library as his trusted advisors. We can find mentors in authors. So read books that promise to deepen your faith and arm you with the arguments you need to give good reasons for the hope that is within you (1 Peter 3:15).
And not just books. There’s a good magazine I know that might be of some help. First Things offers a special student rate of $15 for ten issues per year. Just call us at 1-877-905-9920 or contact us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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