A few years ago, my mother came home from a lecture given by a Catholic professor. As she recounted some memorable aspects of the talk, she told me about a question that had been posed to the speaker: should parents send their children to Catholic universities? The speaker, according to my mum, gave an emphatic “no” and further said, “Let them be out in the world. They should not be hiding away among themselves. They need to be lights in the world!” My mother’s reaction to this response was, “Wow.” So was mine.

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that decisions about university are made for a variety of reasons. If all of your needs are met by a Catholic institution, then absolutely go for it! But there’s a difference between going to a Catholic university because it fulfills your dreams and going out of fear of the secular world. I believe that this was the context of the question posed to the speaker. As such, a more correct interpretation would be: should parents send their children to Catholic universities in order to avoid the negative influences more prevalent at secular universities? This would be choosing a Catholic university for negative reasons - for what one can escape as opposed to what one can gain. And this I cannot agree with.

For my part, my dream school was always the University of Toronto. I had hoped and prayed to study there ever since I was a little girl and saw all of those “big people with backpacks and bikes” walking on the campus. At the time I didn’t even know who they were or what they were doing, but somehow I had a strong sense that I wanted to be one of them one day.

U of T is a huge school with three different campuses, and consequently it has many programs for people of virtually all faiths, cultures, and interests - including a Catholic chaplaincy. I was not particularly involved with Catholic chaplaincy on campus in my first year. I assure you, my lack of involvement was not due to a faltering faith. In fact, I was slowly and surely falling in love with the Christianity and Culture program. My reason was actually more strategic - though admittedly, a tad cynical. I simply did not want want to get sucked into a safe haven where I could flee the “outside.” Again, this is not meant to be a reflection of what Catholic chaplaincies are like. This was about me refusing to find a comfort zone. This was about going out into the desert and wrestling with myself.

So what happened when I entered the “desert”? Lots of conversations. About music and pop culture and film. About politics and the environment and abortion. About finding oneself. About losing oneself. About health. About self-destructive behaviors. About vice. About sin. About darkness and desolation. About feeling small and feeling on top of the world. About making mistakes. About regretting them and not regretting them.  About truth. About goodness. About being an individual. About love. About how to love. About loving.

And I learned that the desert isn't as barren as we might think.

In the past two years I have read St Augustine’s writings for several classes. And one aspect of his theology that has been drilled into my mind is his concept of evil. I will not get into the technical aspects of this right now, but essentially because God did not make evil, and God is the source of existence, evil must not have existence. Evil, therefore, is failing to achieve a complete good - it represents a lack or perversion, not a thing in itself. St Therese worded it in a more positive way, perhaps, when she said, “Everything is grace.” Recognizing that amid the darkness and confusion, God is there, has been a major consolation to me. But at the same time, never have I had such a strong sense of how much we all need God.

Perhaps at times I was a “light in the world” within the secular university culture. I know I didn’t always live up to the standard of “model Christian.” At least I was there. And by being there, I learned that God is there, waiting for us to come out into the desert and do His work. But we cannot do this if we stay in hiding. This is not easy work - it can be daunting. But it can also provide an unprecedented opportunity for grace. And that is what the world taught me.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Blake