I encountered Aurora Griffin one evening at the Opus Dei-run Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, where she was giving a talk and holding a book-signing. The email that I received, informing me of the occasion, advertised the event with the title “God and Woman at Harvard,” playing off of William F. Buckley’s classic book God and Man at Yale.
Buckley’s famous first book, which placed the then-young intellectual into the spotlight, notoriously named names and wrote of professors whose ideological bent, Buckley believed, betrayed Yale’s Christian roots. The inspiration for Griffin’s book, on the other hand, began with fighting an even bigger enemy, Satan himself, battling efforts by Satanists to ridicule Christianity at Harvard.
Aurora Griffin came into the spotlight in 2014 when a group of Satanists were invited to hold a black mass at Harvard. As a devout Catholic and student leader on campus, Aurora decided to stand up and fight against this evil, becoming a leader of a movement that began at the university and eventually gained national attention. It would be the most important thing she did during her years at Harvard, Aurora admitted, honoring God and successfully helping to stop an infamously anti-Catholic ritual from being celebrated on campus.
“Deciding whether to take on the Satanists myself became a defining point in my college career,” she writes. “By God’s grace I found the courage to take a leadership role in resisting the black Mass, even if it meant sacrificing time to prepare for exams.”
The fact that Griffin led this campaign during her last week at Harvard, meaning in the midst of finals week when students lock themselves in the library and are swamped with papers, studying, and exams, says much about her priorities and the integrity and character of her faith and her person.
Aurora went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, deciding with the opportunity to study for a graduate degree in theology at Oxford. While at Oxford, she began writing her book How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students, published by Ignatius Press.
Griffin’s book is an impressive work. Providing 40 practical guidelines, in short and interesting chapters, about how to live and foster a faithful Catholic life in college, it is a book that is useful not only to students but also to those who guide and minister to the college students in their lives: from parents and campus ministers to priests and spiritual directors.
Topics that the book covers show how eclectic it is. The author includes chapters on guidance for Catholics on dating, the usage of social media and technology, the prayer life, the importance of educating the mind and soul with Catholic literature and spiritual reading, orienting one’s life around the liturgical calendar, and much more. These are magnificent, rich insights that have the potential to lead to a cathartic change in the lives of those who open and read.
Griffin conveys how in living a faithful Catholic life college students are not deprived of the college experience but live out that experience in a more robust and meaningful way. Accounts of the friendships that Griffin developed, the study habits and work-ethic she has cultivated, the Catholic sorority she helped found, the active social and community life she has been a part of, the moral causes she has been able to stand for—all because of a full-embrace of her Catholicism—shows how much more she has received in her college experience not in spite of, but because of, her active Catholic faith and identity.
Aurora explains that the “purpose of our time in college is to love the Lord more deeply and to develop the skills to serve Him more effectively. Living out my faith in college was not something I did in addition to my schoolwork, extracurriculars, and social life but was something that shaped how I experienced all those things.”
“It was my faith that kept me studying late at night when I was tired because I felt obligated to be a good steward of my opportunities. It was my faith that served as the reference point for all my studies, rendering no lecture or assignment irrelevant. It was my faith that led me to meet a great group of friends, whom I’ll cherish the rest of my life. …My college years meant something. I grew in the most important thing of all: knowing God. And after graduation, I stepped into the world with a peace and a sense of purpose that even the most successful secular friends do not have.”
Through autobiographical snippets the book tells the story of a courageous young woman who stood up for her faith when it was being attacked at a secular Ivy League school, and who can teach others, through her writing, how to deepen the life of faith and transform not only the college experience but one’s life journey for the better. Although not an autobiography by traditional standards, Griffin’s book does share many personal anecdotes from her life, making for a read that finds a nice balance between a guide for college students and recollections of the author’s own personal journey.
Some of the stories that Aurora shares of her own journey are real treasures. Consider this account from her time at Oxford:
“On special occasions, Catholics have the opportunity to be more public about our worship, like on the Feast of Corpus Christi. This year, in Oxford, I processed with hundreds of people through the city streets, led by a priest with the monstrance and another with a megaphone announcing the hymns and decades of the Rosary.”
Griffin continues, “Many people came out of pubs and shops to stare at us, but a few knelt down where they were, crossing themselves. It was an incredibly moving experience to be able to witness to my faith in a public way in such a secular place. With Christ in front of me, I felt invincible. I was so grateful, and proud, to be Catholic.”
Despite the book’s subtitle – “40 Tips for Faithful College Students” – I cannot stress enough how eclectic the work is, and how the insights that are contained within can help strengthen the spiritual life of any Catholic. One of the four sections of the book is dedicated to prayer, and Griffin has some of the most useful techniques and advice for cultivating one’s spirituality.
The rich spiritual tradition of St. Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei has influenced Aurora greatly, who has been spiritually directed at Harvard by Opus Dei priests and has attended Opus Dei retreats. A central aspect of Opus Dei spirituality is sanctifying our work. In this sense, Aurora writes, “St. Josemaria taught that we have a twofold vocation in school—to be diligent students and loving friends. Schoolwork, social life, and faith are fully integrated, so that everything works together for our growth in holiness.”
One of the treasures of Opus Dei spirituality is understanding penance—in other words, helping us how to embrace the Cross, to make sense of our suffering. Griffin explains how much that spirituality has done for her. “Opus Dei showed me that taking deliberate steps to cultivate your faith helps you deal with all kinds of challenges, even physical suffering and loss.”
“Talking to the priest and numeraries at the [Opus Dei] retreat, I was assured that suffering is different for those who have faith. Catholics still experience pain, but it has both meaning and hope of resolution. I could offer up my schoolwork to God as prayer, and offer up my back pain in expiation of sin. I could offer my trials in prayer for the souls of my departed loved ones and hope to see them again.”
These are rich and beautiful insights, and are only a taste of what a bountiful source this book is in helping cultivate such a meaningful spirituality.
Among the many chapters, there is one dedicated to discerning one’s vocation, including the possibility of religious life for those who feel the Lord may be calling them. Like all the chapters, it’s practical. It provides three of the most essential practices that any person discerning a vocation needs to follow in their life to lead to proper discernment.
The campus minister or spiritual director would do well to have such an informative work on their shelf when counseling college students who come to their door. The parent would benefit greatly having such a resource to better guide their sons and daughters. And, foremost, the discerning student would benefit greatly from advice that is practical and works.
“Some books give you brilliant philosophy or scholarship. This one gives you something more precious and uncommon: common sense,” wrote Peter Kreeft in the foreword. Griffin has a keen understanding of human nature. She is a woman of faith and she is a pragmatist, someone who offers practical insights that, for those willing to take up the book’s principles, will affect their lives greatly.
There is also the sign of faith. There are certain authors that when you read them you realize that you are reading a man or woman of prayer. There is a depth that their words possess—not necessarily a natural eloquence (which a secular scribe can also attain) but a more elusive and mysterious quality, a sort of unction in the language which touches the soul when it is read and gives it internal confirmation that inspired truth is in front of us.
Griffin is one of these authors. Reading her you realize that you are reading an author with an intimate relationship with God. A person’s spirituality usually translates to other facets of their life, including their writing. How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard is a rare book, one that inspires a strong faith, able to edify both college students and Catholics from all walks of life, yet does so in a way that is practical and achievable.
With the practicality of a Peter Kreeft and the transforming potentiality of a Matthew Kelly, Aurora Griffin’s first book places her among a list of Catholic authors whose writing has done much to energize and renew the Church and the People of God. Her work can do the same. Eloquent but easy to ready, thoughtful, spiritual and pragmatic, the book is a must-have for any Catholic library.