As preregistration rolls around next week, it’s worth giving a serious thought or two to the kind of courses you want to take, the kinds of professors you want to learn with, the kinds of ideas you want to wrestle with, the kinds of things you want to learn. In short, it’s a good time to take stock of the education you are getting at Georgetown.

This stock-taking is a good idea if you’re thinking of being a doctor or a lawyer, an investment banker or an accountant, a teacher or a writer, or just about any other profession you can name. It’s an even better idea if you’re thinking of being a spouse or a parent. It’s an essential process if you’re thinking of being a person of intelligent faith.

In 1962, Flannery O’Connor, a quirky and thoroughly-worth-reading American writer, wrote a letter to Alfred Corn, a young man at the end of his freshman year in college. He had attended a lecture she gave at Emory University. After the lecture he wrote to O’Connor asking for advice on how to deal with the difficulty he was having in maintaining his faith after having been inundated with so many new, diverse and conflicting ideas. He, like O’Connor, was a Christian, but his question and her answer speak to the experience of people of many faiths.

O’Connor responded with a thoughtful letter that rewards careful and repeated percolation. You can find it in “The Habit of Being,” a collection of her letters. In this particular letter, she begins by suggesting that her correspondent relax. His predicament is not unusual, unexpected or dire. On the contrary, it’s quite usual, quite expected and quite an opportunity. She reminds him of St. Peter’s heartfelt and unnuanced plea, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” So says any Christian. Well, at least the honest ones.

But she doesn’t offer just a pious pat on the head. She gives her reader some good old-fashioned common sense advice, advice that any college student who wants to grow into possession of adult faith would do well to follow:

“As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe.”

She advises patience, persistence and purposeful choosing in shaping one’s intellectual formation. She recognizes that college students in her day, no less than in ours were, and are, presented with great challenges and great opportunities when it comes to growing as people of faith. O’Connor urges action, writing,”If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation.” For you, such cultivation makes demands on the approach you take to the course preregistration you will be doing next week.

In order to grow as much as possible as a Hoya of intelligent adult faith, one has to choose courses and professors carefully. There are all sorts of intellectual delights spread out on the academic buffet table that is the university’s preregistration Web page. As with any buffet, some of the offerings are more nourishing than others. Check out the ingredients and the cook before you buy. In the immortal words of the Syms company: an educated consumer is our best customer.

O’Connor makes her point this way: “To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.” Mind you, there’s nothing inherently evil about agnostics or pagans. Most humans are agnostics at one point or another, and God knows some of my best friends are pagans, as are many of the intellectual sculptors of my own soul. Still, the simple truth is that on this Hilltop we are bombarded every day with all manners of things to feed our agnosticism and paganism. It takes purpose and forethought to nourish our faith.

O’Connor concludes her letter with a thought that speaks to the hearts of many Hoyas when she notes that “. in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he [sic] can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.”

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is an assistant dean for Georgetown College. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT. appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher and Fr. James Schall, S.J., alternating as writers.

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