I didn’t go to Harvard and couldn’t have even in my wildest dreams — for myriad test-score, financial, and Yankee-fan reasons. But when I opened up How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard, I encountered a great and handy guide to practical wisdom for living a good, faithful life. It’s directed to Catholics, from Catholic publisher Ignatius Press, but it’s got gems for anyone looking for tips on living a virtuous and balanced life. Author Aurora Griffin, a recent Harvard graduate, talks with me about the book, the school, and life.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is it harder to stay Catholic at Harvard than at other places?
Aurora Griffin: I suppose that’s the conceit of the book — it grabs your attention because Harvard epitomizes the secular university system that makes it so difficult for students to keep their faith on campus. As Scott Hahn said in his blurb for the book, “If these tips can work at Harvard, they can work anywhere!” However, the point of the book is that it’s not really that hard to stay Catholic, even at a secular university — that is, if you are committed to your faith going into college. Given the dominance of secularism in the intellectual and social life of the modern university, I think it would be difficult to become Catholic at a place like Harvard. I have friends who have done it and admire them for it very much. On the other hand, if you come to campus knowing that there are going to be certain challenges and opportunities that I’ve tried to outline in my book, then you can take advantage of the rich resources at your disposal as a Catholic at a place like Harvard. No one says it’s easy or automatic, but intentionally cultivating my faith at a secular university informed the rest of my college experience in a beautiful way.
Lopez: Do you worry the title might keep people from realizing there are insights for anyone at any college, or those who are not in college at all?
Griffin: The title came to me the first time I thought of the idea for the book, and despite having a few conversations with the publisher about changing it to something more approachable or generic, I decided to stick with it. I actually overheard a mom at one of my book signings say, “Bleh! Harvard! My son’s going to this other school, so this doesn’t mean anything to him!” I was sorry to see her respond that way, though I knew that was a risk when I chose the title. Still, I think others have been able to see how it authentically communicates the particularities of my experience. I didn’t stay Catholic at college — I stayed Catholic at Harvard. I lived in Harvard’s dorms, prayed at Harvard’s Catholic center, wrote for Harvard’s newspaper. I can only speak from my experience, but I hope I have done so in a way that lets people draw universally applicable principles from it.
Lopez: Did you ever hesitate to write the book because you’re so young?
Griffin: It’s funny: When my late friend and mentor Michael Novak first saw a manuscript of the book, he said, “It’s way too businesslike for a memoir!” And I laughed and said, “It’s not a memoir. I’m twenty-five years old!” With his advice, I added some personal anecdotes and a note to the readers telling them that I am writing as a recent graduate, with all the limitations and advantages that perspective offers. There are certainly wiser books out there from professors, priests, and campus-ministry professionals, but this one offers something different because it’s written by someone with the experiences, goals, worries, triumphs, and failures of a college student.
As for the hesitating bit: The idea came to me on Easter Sunday in 2015. I dropped everything I was doing to write down my ideas, and it was all there: the title, the publisher, Peter Kreeft writing the forward, and then 37 of the 40 tips. I had a draft by Pentecost. I only really stopped and thought about the fact that I had written a book when I had to go through the painful and repetitious process of editing.
Then there came to be a point with the book where I had submitted final edits to the publisher, and unwisely looked through the manuscript, knowing I wouldn’t be able to make any more changes. It had been a year since I had written the first draft and already I agonized over whether I had told the right story or how I might explain something differently now. Lord willing, I would be able to write a different, wiser version of the book every year for the rest of my life. For now, this is what He wanted, and I hope it encourages students and their parents as it is.
Lopez: How do you know if your friendships are “true” or not? If you are a true friend or not?
Griffin: When it comes to friendships, I’m an Aristotelian through and through. In Book 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics,Aristotle draws the distinctions between friendships of utility (classmates), friendships of pleasure (“party friends”), and true friendships, which inspire both people to greater virtue. You know if you have one of these true and greatest kinds of friendships because you love the other person for his own sake — you will his good precisely because it is good for him, not because you gain from it in any way. I’ve had maybe ten of these friends in my life, and I think that’s more than many people ever get. I should add that a couple of them are not Christian. It’s definitely easier to encourage each other in virtue if you are both aiming at the same thing (i.e., God), but it’s not impossible. If I more fully lived some of the virtues of my pagan friends, I’d be a better Christian.
Lopez: What do you mean when you write, “If you refuse to forfeit your soul, sometimes you will gain the whole world”?
Griffin: My dad told me from the time I was a child that there would come a day when I had to choose between what I most wanted and Christ. Whether that was being popular, or getting some promotion, or whatever I really wanted, one day I would be tested to see if I loved something else more than God. For me, that day came when I was interviewing for the Rhodes Scholarship, and the interview committee asked me whether I would support embryonic-stem-cell research (if I were hypothetically on Bush’s Bioethics Council in 2004, when this was the most hotly contested ethical issue).
I knew that if I said “no,” it would seem like I was a religious fanatic whose ideology hindered her from wanting to pursue legitimate avenues of scientific research. If I said “yes,” I’d be betraying my beliefs about the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, which of course, is at the heart of one of the most important issues of our day: abortion. Anyway, I wish I could say it was easy, but it was a tough choice because I don’t think I had ever wanted anything as badly as I wanted the Rhodes Scholarship. But I experienced a lot of conviction and grace in that moment and simply told the truth — that human life should be protected, from conception, even when it is inconvenient or profoundly difficult. I won the scholarship, and the board assured me that being authentic to what you believe is attractive and refreshing, even when people don’t agree with you. I realize it doesn’t always turn out in your favor to be authentic, but sometimes when you do the right thing, it works out anyway.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review Online. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.