by Hannah Ballo
The clock chimed an early morning tone, echoing in the parking lot of the strip mall, while the sound carried all the way the hill to campus, the remnant revival of a once thriving old steel town. The whole air stank of rotten eggs, a byproduct of the town’s still existent heavy metal refining industry. Despite the fact that the strong wind could be capable of blowing away the stench, the humidity in the air of the late August day made it so that the sticky stink clung to the very hairs on one’s head and burrowed deep into the fibers of one’s clothing.
It was an unpleasant place for Jennifer to have imagined ending up, but it was just as well to be far from home. Away from the place that made her wear long skirts instead of jeans, and exactly three swabs of mascara and no more, instead of the full-face she’d painted on this morning and extra earrings she’d cuffed onto her earlobes.
Life living in a fishbowl in this tiny college town would at least be preferred to the microscope that had been her upbringing. Back home, there was church every morning, “Mass” as it’s properly called, while her parents pretended to be a wholesome front, while every car ride home dissolved into some manner of bickering and pernicious verbiage to each other and the kids. Usually, it ended with her mom silencing her dad into total frustration and submission. They could be obedient to the strict house rules, and in bed by eight pm, same as when they were preschoolers, and nothing more.
Now it was time to go off to receive an education, and naturally she had no choice in the matter as to where she could attend. The galling part about not turning eighteen until after graduation, and the secondary blow of having it paid for if she went to “their” school made it pretty much a signed, sealed and delivered contract upon first application. At least this would be the path to financial freedom, and therefore, time to live a new life, moved out for good.
She couldn’t wait to see the looks on the faces of the other teens starting out as freshmen, when they first noticed she wasn’t one of them, when she begged to disagree and dissent from the ways of the authoritarian patriarchs.
This thought bore in her mind with some distaste as yet another Baby Boomer professor ascended the podium to make a closing remark as orientation came to a close.
The next morning was her bright and early eight am. She shuffled through the crowd, head bent down, determined not to meet anyone until she had a chance to see what kind of brainwashing she would be up against first. Until then, she would be on her guard for all the perfect holier-than-thou disciples milling about campus.
Introduction to Christian Ethics began with some opening remarks from a very professorly-type, the complete package replete with a tweed sport coat resting over his shoulders, and overgrown gray temples keeping the thick cut glasses in place. A handsome young man sneaked a smile at Jennifer from across the row of desks. Her heart skipped, taking in his very nice-looking face, and she reddened from the gaze.
“I’ve got one thing to ask you,” tweedy man began, adjusting his already loosened tie to give more breathing room for his neck, the humidity clearly getting to him too. “What is the point of being a ‘good’ person?”
Jennifer wised up to her chance at a stone-cold victory and her hand shot up. “To feel better about ourselves, convinced that we’re more meaningful creatures than all the rest of the apes, and justify our id’s dark desires in reconciliation to the superego, our preferred public image.”
The professor frowned, chewed his lip slightly, and then his eyes brightened quite a bit, which came as a surprise. “Impressively consistent answer with the Freudian and post-modern worldviews. Under this system, indeed there is no point of pursuing being ‘good’ for its own sake. There is only ‘better’ or ‘worse’ and man himself becomes the arbitrator of good and evil. In this system of ultimate moral relativism, any evil action can be justified if it serves a greater purpose of obtaining power.”
Jennifer’s mouth fell open, and she grew hotter and sweatier. The cute boy gave her a strange look, and then stared straight down at his desk. Guess I scared him away. Then, he raised his hand before replying himself to the professor.
“Isn’t it true that the point of being a ‘good’ person is pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful as the greatest end to which all of us seek? We seek to be good because it brings us real happiness? There are multiple levels of happiness, from being happy over passing, insignificant things, to being happy over doing truly good and just.
“Therefore, there must be concrete differences between good and evil, and human beings can objectively choose to do what is good, or choose what is lacking in goodness, an evil. This can be known by reason and it points to the existence of God.” He said existence of God while looking Jennifer straight in the eye. It was simply unnerving.
Her throat went absolutely dry. Is that really what she wished to assert? That this world was nothing but a ball of spinning dirt holding on through gravity, and utterly useless for obtaining knowledge? That there was no moral difference between helping an old woman cross the street versus neglecting the aged and dying? “Whatever feels good, do it.” This ethics course was going to be much more complicated than she thought.
The rest of the class flew by, but it didn’t make rhyme or reason to Jennifer. Her thoughts were on the first thirty seconds of class.
Afterward, the young man followed her out, and called, “Hey!” Of course, he would. Didn’t people know that she wanted to be left alone? She didn’t belong here. People were laughing and smiling, filing into the giant chapel, but it wasn’t any good to stay nearby. She would hole up alone in the dorm room and pretend to answer her roommate in amicable terms so she would stop asking questions.
Finally, she realized she couldn’t lose the guy, so she realized she’d better stop and turn around before the awkward scene drew too much attention. The guy had quite the audacity anyway to persist even when she pretended not to hear him over the dim of students.
“Hi,” he said, smiling broadly as if she hadn’t done a single thing to irritate him or appear rude in any way. “I’m John Martin.” Typical. A lot of the men around this place had names that were “John-Something.”
“Jennifer,” she said. She realized he wasn’t going to stop sticking out his hand until she shook it.
“It’s great to meet a non-Catholic around here,” he grinned, as if discovering an interesting new life form on the planet Mars.
“Well, I come from a Catholic family,” she said quickly. Not as though she intended to call them anytime soon, just to hear them ride her about her getting nothing less than A’s during her first semester, and how they didn’t miss her not doing the chores back home. The expectations and stakes were high, even though this stupid ethics class was just a requirement she had to get through in order to take her first physics class.
“I hope you’ll feel welcome here,” John Martin replied. “I’d like to grab lunch with you if that’s okay.”
“It’s nine o’clock.”
“When it’s lunchtime,” he winked, pulling out his phone. “Type in your number right here.”
“Are you flirting with me? Because I’m not interested.”
“Around these parts, being friendly isn’t assumed to be flirtatious,” he continued calmly, unaffectedly. “But you do seem like a sweet young lady.”
“Sweet?” Incredulity reigned in her tone. “I’ve never been called that.”
“Now you have,” he said, almost as though trying to hold back a laugh. “I don’t think you’re the moral relativist you think you are.”
“Shh,” she snapped. “Come on, let’s go to that bench under the trees to talk. Assuming you don’t have another class,” she said coldly.
“Perfectly fine. Why the secrecy?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m a fish out of water.”
“All fish are welcome in this sea. We just don’t get many non-Catholic fish is all. They like it here, a sort of oasis if you will.”
“Well, I wish my oasis had been public school,” she rolled her eyes.
“I think you’ll find the people here to be quite genuine,” he continued on unperturbed. The most strangely confident person she had ever met! “Why are you so unhappy to be here anyhow?”
“It’s not that I’m determined to be at a party school for the sake of… you know. I just was forced here without any discussion with my parents. It’s always been that way. Keeping up appearances. We have to be the ‘good’ Catholic family. To the outside world. It wasn’t on the inside. That’s why I couldn’t resist my comment in class,” she said with a devious grin.
For the first time, John Martin looked sad. “Don’t pity me,” she snapped.
“I don’t. Okay, maybe I do. It sounds like you’re biased in your ethics based on your personal experience clouding your judgement.”
“Don’t judge me.”
“I’m not judging you. I’m judging your judgement.”
“What is that supposed to be mean?”
“It means that you were shown the face of God the Father by imperfect parents. And you’re suffering as a result. God Himself feels like your enemy, and you pretend He doesn’t exist.”
“John Martin, I don’t know who you think you are, but what gives you the right to probe into my personal business?” Her face was irate.
“I’m very sorry. All I meant to do was make you feel welcome.”
“Why? Why do you care?”
“Because everyone knows what it’s like to feel lonely from time to time. I’d hate to feel alone in the entire universe too.”
“Isn’t that just a psychological suggestion you’ve fed yourself? To feel better? Hasn’t it already been proved that religion is nothing but self-soothing?”
“You really don’t believe in God, do you?” He looked like a depressed young child.
“He… wasn’t there for me. If He exists.”
“Maybe you thought He wasn’t there. Because your telescope to the universe has cracks in it.”
“I have no idea what that means, once again— your metaphor.”
“Your family is the lens through which you see everything. Even yourself. Even God.”
“How can anyone be asked to see outside the ‘lens’ through which they were given?” Now even Jennifer felt unsure, unstable. And really just depressed.
“Through healing. Through Him.” John Martin pointed to the chapel. “He’s there, right now.”
“It’s kind of preposterous to believe that,” Jennifer sighed.
“Yes. We’re either all preposterous, or we’re all correct.” John Martin laughed to himself as though he’d heard a very funny joke.
“I think you’re crazy,” she said, but her tone betrayed her awe.
“Is there such a thing as crazy and sane if there’s no such thing as good versus evil? If there is no right versus wrong way to live? If the point of being ‘good’ is to conform to someone else’s control in a hierarchy of power?”
“You really know your stuff,” Jennifer admitted. “This must not be your first course here.”
“I’m just a sophomore, but my dad’s a total ethics nerd,” he chuckled.
“So, you’re asking me to believe that you’re not crazy.” Jennifer wasn’t sure if it was a question, or a statement, or neither. The whole turn of conversation was simply unfathomable. Very deep for such a short exchange.
“Will you consider for just a semester that we might not be as crazy as you suppose? And come with me? Every day? You have to commit. It’s now or never. Don’t go through this college with a half-baked desire to find the truth.” The idealism was strong in his face and voice, and Jennifer truly hadn’t believed up until now that people sounded and acted like this anymore. It was like he was a rogue in one of those spaghetti Westerns, with grit and resolve like a gunslinging sheriff.
“Come with you where?”
“To class, to Mass, and to the philosophy club.”
“Well, I already signed up for class and I’m determined to get a good grade in it, so that’s nothing to have to agree to there. The philosophy club interests me because there’s a debate. As to Mass, I didn’t think I’d decide to keep going since my parents were no longer making me. What’s in it for me, that I should do this thing with you?”
“What’s in it for you? Potentially the best thing that ever happened to you, if you’re open to it. It’s going to sound cheesy if I tell you, ‘faith,’ and ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ But it’s true. You just don’t know what you’re missing, because those words meant something different to you, something harmful. But they’re really the best things. And perhaps hearing all this stuff will mean something else now that you’re away from home. I’m not asking you to re-convert. I’m asking you to think, to pray, and to just spend time with your new… friend.”
“Of course, me. I’m your friend, John Martin. At your service.” He grinned and for the first time she noticed the gap between his teeth. It was kind of disarming. “And you’ll make another,” he said, gesturing once again to the chapel.
“Why would you go through all this trouble, just for me? I barely know you. I haven’t asked to be your friend.”
“I don’t know, call it the Holy Spirit, or my personality, or both. I just think you deserve to know you’re not lost in the shuffle. You matter.”
Jennifer went absolutely speechless and felt a shiver despite the hot day. “I guess I have no choice. You’re a persuasive person.”
“No, you do have a choice. You have to tell me yes or no.”
She went silent again and stared at the ants crawling through the dirt beneath the oak trees. “Yes.” She looked up into John Martin’s earnest green eyes. “Thank you for noticing me.”
John Martin grinned. “I’m excited to learn more about you at lunch. See you in a few hours! Meet you right in front of the cafeteria.”
“I will,” Jennifer said, but she doubted. His eyebrows rose. She relaxed and smiled for the first time. “I will,” she said resolutely.
Hannah Ballo is a Catholic writer and speaker. She’s a Theology alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Her background is Catholic radio and parish youth ministry. She founded Stella Maris Ministry in 2021 to dialogue with young people about the necessity of finding one’s identity in Christ. Explaining the relevance of God and worship starts with getting back to the core foundation of recognizing that we are “human beings,” not “human doings.” Our value and dignity is not what we do to “self-create” but lies in discovering the truth about being created in the Image and Likeness of God.