Saints and Study
By Br Vincent Antony Löning | As the academic year comes to a close for the student brothers, here are a few thoughts that have come to me throughout the course of this year. Study is an essential part of our Dominican life—and this is particularly obvious for those of us currently being formed for the priesthood. But that study can never be disconnected from our prayer.
As the academic year comes to a close for the student brothers, here are a few thoughts that have come to me throughout the course of this year. Study is an essential part of our Dominican life—and this is particularly obvious for those of us currently being formed for the priesthood. But that study can never be disconnected from our prayer. This is for two reasons.
First of all, any Christian should strive, in everything he or she undertakes, to be constantly giving glory to God. This is what St. Augustine makes of Paul’s admonition to ‘pray ceaselessly’. Obviously, we must all set apart time for prayer, both individually, and in common, but beyond such times we must remember to often turn our hearts back to God, in the midst of the day’s busy activities: our study can become an extension of our prayer. But secondly, since our work of study is meant to prepare us for the service of Christ in His Church and at His altar, prayer should not only lead us to study, but also study to prayer. This can of course be challenging. Study can be abstract, uninspiring, or simply difficult to relate to the spiritual life. How are we to make a success of it, if even our brother St. Thomas Aquinas said of the Summa that it all ‘seemed as straw’ in comparison to even a little spiritual insight? Once again, prayer is the answer, since God’s grace is precisely there to help us in our undertakings. Even St. Benedict says as much in the introduction of his Rule, ‘This, then, is the beginning of my advice: make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt.’
What is the point of all this study? To give us the tools to preach and teach the Gospel. Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim to be the Risen Lord, is also the Eternal Wisdom whom we seek. Really, as he reminds us himself, we have but one teacher, who is in Heaven. We have to be his students (in the broad sense as Christians, in the particular sense as Dominicans) if we are going to have anything worthwhile to pass on as the fruits of our contemplation. St. Ambrose, whom I looked at in an earlier post, complains in the De Officiis of being forced to start teaching before he had properly learnt, having been elected bishop while he was still a catechumen. But we couldn’t get away with it!
This brings us back once more to prayer. Prayer not only flows out of and into our study, but it also sustains it and is what brings it alive. And this is especially true of our prayers to the saints. How come? Look at Christ: He is our perfect Teacher. The fifth joyful mystery of the Rosary, the Child Jesus teaching in the temple, reminds us of this. So where shall we look for better examples of perfect students than among his saints? Having a saintly patron for your studies provides you with not only a warm and human example to imitate, but also a powerful intercessor who is himself or herself an intimate of Christ. And there are so many to choose from! Obviously, some Dominican favourites, such as St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Catherine of Siena, or some more traditional students’ devotions, such as St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron of philosophers, or St. Nicholas, patron of scholars. St. Mary, too, especially under her title of sedes sapientiae, seat of wisdom. I find it particularly useful to ask for help from my own patrons in religious life: St. Vincent Ferrer, who was a devoted student himself, and was said to follow prayer by study and study by prayer, and St. Antony of Padua, who, we sometimes forget (ironically for the patron of lost objects?), is a Doctor of the Church, with the title of doctor evangelicus for his devoted study of the Gospels in particular.
And heavenly patrons can teach us not only how to study, but also how to pray. I leave you with the following beautiful prayer by Aquinas:
Grant me, O Lord my God,
a mind to know you,
a heart to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
and a hope of finally embracing you.