Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chastity for the Hoyas? Oh boyas!

If you had told me before last night that, out of the 50-odd talks I've given on chastity to young adults since The Thrill of the Chaste came out in December 2006, the best one ever would be at Georgetown University, I would not have believed you.

I knew there was a pro-chastity contingent at the Jesuit institution, to be sure, including the groups who wanted me to appear on campus — InterVarsity Fellowship, the Protestant Student Forum, Catholic Daughters of America, and Knights of Columbus. But the campus is better known for countering Catholic teachings on sexuality in ways both official (hosting Eve Ensler's "Monologues" and sponsoring internships for Planned Parenthood lobbyists) and unofficial (Hoyas for Choice).

When I worked for the Cardinal Newman Society, Patrick Reilly told me I could expect conflict if I spoke at the nation's oldest Catholic university. He said that when he spoke there, he was met by women wearing graphic "Monologues" T-shirts.

So, before my Georgetown appearance yesterday, I called for backup, e-mailing five Jesuit Dawn Patrol readers who have been supportive of my book to ask for prayers. I also asked them for advice they might have on including references to Jesuit teachings in my talk, which I believed would add meaning even if many attendees were not interested in their university's heritage. They all replied with promises of prayers and offered some excellent tips.

Arriving at the university, my first time ever there, I was taken to dinner by students who filled me in on the campus culture. Hookups were common, they said, and, contrary to an op-ed in this week's school paper, condoms were easily available, distributed for free in the school's "free speech" area, the ironically named Red Square, and in envelopes outside dorm-room doors of student volunteers known as "condom fairies."

"And the RAs [resident advisors] permit that?" I asked.

"Often the condom fairies are the RAs," a student replied.

After dinner, I was led to Room 107, a classroom at the Intercultural Center that seats about 60. The organizers weren't expecting a huge crowd. It had rained nearly all day, and many students were expected to attend a conflicting event — an on-campus talk by Ron Paul.

To everyone's surprise, so many students crowded into the room that there were actually people sitting on the floor.

The audience behaved ideally — they were entirely gracious and highly attentive. I gave a talk similar to recent ones I gave last month at Arlington Diocese Theology on Tap (listen online) and Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church outside Indianapolis (listen online), with added references to Jesuit teachings. For example, on the advice of a scholastic (seminarian) who answered my e-mail, when I spoke about how chastity is a requirement for growing in one's relationship with God, I linked it to the Jesuits' motto: Ad majoram Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God).

The advice I had received from Jesuit prayer warriors also helped during the Q&A. When a female student asked a variation of the "how far can I go with my boyfriend" question, I said, borrowing from the advice of the same scholastic, that one should rather ask, "How can I show the most love," — not only to my boyfriend, I added, but to everyone. (I also answered the question directly with a bit of advice I've heard from a priest: Go for affection, not arousal. It's not easy, but if you make a conscious effort to be aware of your body's responses, you know where to draw the line.)

Another scholastic's advice helped when the same questioner asked about "unchaste thoughts." It made me think of a section of Ignatius' autobiography describing a time before the saint was so saintly.

Ignatius talks about how his imagination ran as he recovered from leg surgery. Lying on his sickbed, he fantasized about an "illustrious lady" and how he would impress her once he was mobile. But he also had thoughts about drawing nearer to God, a result of how his caretakers had, against his wishes, given him spiritual reading to occupy himself during his recovery. (He had asked for "romance novels" — the supermarket-checkout tomes of his day.)

In answering the student's question and talking about my own nightly efforts to push out sexual fantasies in favor of godly thoughts such as contemplating the mysteries of the rosary (events in the lives of Jesus and Mary), I paraphrased these lines from Ignatius:

This succession of thoughts occupied him for a long while, those about God alternating with those about the world. But in these thoughts there was this difference. When he thought of worldly things it gave him great pleasure, but afterward he found himself dry and sad. But when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem ... and practising austerities, he found pleasure not onlywhile thinking of them, but also when he had ceased.
It is the same, I explained, with me. Both kinds of thoughts give me pleasure, but it's only when I fall asleep thinking about God that I find myself in truly good spirits when I wake up in the morning.

I left the podium to applause, but, unbeknownst to me, the best was yet to come.

The organizers had mentioned there would be a discussion afterwards. I hadn't really thought about what that would entail, as there had never been one after any of my past talks, but I stuck around to find out.

About 20 of the 60 students remained to talk. They were divided into two small groups, with a moderator from one of the sponsoring groups leading each one.

I was amazed that, after sitting through my half-hour talk and the half-hour Q&A, so many students stayed to talk about the issues raised — for over an hour.

* * *

Since I began speaking about chastity, I have often observed how hard it is for one speaker to make a difference. It feels like I get airdropped into a campus, do my thing, and then have to trust that someone will pick up the ball afterwards and work to change the culture.

Georgetown was different. The students who stayed for the discussion groups — as well as the many more who listened to me and asked questions — were visibly hungry for fellowship. They wanted to make what they had experienced during the evening last.

The "Monologues" and "Hoyas for Choice" culture leads many of these students to fear that he or she is practically the only one trying to live out the Church's teachings on chastity, while everyone else is having sex.

Being able to speak with their peers in small groups, the students — both those who were already living chastely, and those who were curious but found it problematic — were able to see that they were not alone in their discomfort with the cavalier ways in which sex is presented to them. Even the students who weren't sold on all the Church's teachings felt like sex meant something, or should mean something, and they wanted to find fellowship with others who were bucking the pressure to hook up.

At the end of each group, the moderator passed around a sign-in sheet for participants who would be interested in follow-up activities. Each sign-in sheet was filled.

I get goose bumps now just thinking about it. Something happened. Students are taking the opportunity to find support in living chastely and are running with it.

Both the Protestant and Catholic sponsors agreed: The Holy Spirit is working.

From now on, I am going to ask my speaking agency to recommend (though not require) that every college-age group that invites me to speak engage participants in small-group discussion afterwards.

Thanks so much to the sponsors, and many thanks to everyone who prayed for the success of the event. This was a very special evening. I am so thankful to have been part of something that looks like it will bear beautiful fruit.

Next stop, Sex Week at Yale!