The Best Part of Being an Aggie

Although the “official” entry of Texas A&M to the SEC was 1 July, the “grand entrance” (and for a Palm Beacher, the importance of this cannot be understated) will be this Saturday, when the Florida Gators visit Kyle Field.  One serious question, of course, is whether Kyle Field will stay, be remodelled, or built somewhere else, but that’s another story.

For Aggies living in Texas (and that’s most of them) entering the SEC wasn’t an obvious choice, and for some it was controversial.  For those of us who live in SEC country, it was a dream come true.  After years of being “in the wilderness” we’ve suddenly awoken to being a real part of the region.  SEC team fans–and in these parts supporting a school is a primary or secondary religion, depending upon the person–haven’t grasped what having Texas A&M in the conference means just yet.  But they will.

The subject of religion, however, brings up what is, for me, the best part of being an Aggie.  Today Texas A&M is truly a world-class institution academically, and certainly in the scientific and engineering fields being an Aggie is a major plus.  But beyond that my time at A&M was crowned not only by my academic accomplishments but more than that by the spiritual transformation that took place.

The backdrop to that transformation took place my last year in prep school, when I “swam the Tiber” and became a Roman Catholic.  Doing that not only got me out of a church being taken over by revisionists; it also broke me out of the élite cocoon that Palm Beach Episcopalianism had me in.  Both of these were crucial for what followed at Texas A&M.

Like everything else about the place, the set-up for Catholicism around Texas A&M was different.  For one thing, the distinction between the outreach to the students–the Texas A&M Newman Association–and the community–St. Mary’s Parish–were very much intertwined.   My first year I stayed out of Newman, but became a lector and got to vote in my first parish council election.  The last was slightly hilarious because my Calculus I teacher, an ex-seminarian, was running, and my voting against him did not prevent his successful election.

The second year was another story.  I decided to get involved in Newman.  Newman had very strong group cohesion, one which was partly a product of the spiritual movement there and partly a by-product of Aggie culture.  There I met people of my age who were serious Christians, something I had never done before.  They challenged me in ways that I had not experienced before.  They also introduced me to a coffeehouse ministry which, although a non-denominational counselling centre, had about a third of its staff as Roman Catholics.

My reaction to this was a combination of interest and reservations.  The interest of course was in the strong Christian fellowship to which I was instinctively attracted to.  That is what the New Testament had in mind, but up to then I had never seen it.  It was also good to run with people who put God first.

The reservations were along two lines.  The first was the distinctively anti-intellectual tendency of most of the Christians around me.  That was part and parcel with a good deal of the “Jesus Movement” Christianity of the era, a reaction to what the liberals had done with the faith.  But my intellectual interests were the opposite, primarily St. Thomas Aquinas.  But that in turn ran counter to a good deal of post-Vatican II Catholicism.

The second was the gnawing feeling that a great deal that I was experiencing was unsustainable.  I tend to spend too much time in the future; what would happen when the party was over?  And, coming from where I did, I realised that there were many out there who would shut the party down if they had a chance.  (The jury is still very much out on whether they will pull this off or not).

The result of this conflict was a year and a half internal tug of war, writing this in the middle of the thing.  But in the end–with some help from my parish priest back home–I made the decision to “go with the flow” in the living water.  The result was a grand last year at A&M, which offset my parents’ crumbling marriage back home and a challenging senior year in engineering.

I would be the first to admit that people in those times got into many strange things.  But Aggies are a practical bunch.  Most of the people I knew ended up in successful careers, stable marriages and families, and a continued commitment to God.  That kind of practicality made it easier to avoid things like covenant communities or outright communes.

That’s the kind of thing you like to take away from your time at university.  Texas A&M is more than an institution of higher learning; it is an experience, one like no other.  For me, the core of that was the spiritual transformation.  People say that an education cannot be taken away from you; in this case, the positive result is eternal.

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