Want to Pray Well? Study Well

This afternoon, I gave a talk to the returning teachers at Christ the King on the virtue of study. I made four basic points:

  1. Reason is good, and ordered towards God, since all truth is of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Therefore, studiousness is a virtue that we ought to practice.
  3. This is particularly true of Catholic school teachers, given their unique calling.
  4. Studiousness must be rooted in prayer, and should help us to pray better.

We opened with St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before study. Here’s the text of the full talk:


Omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto est. This is a Latin saying of St. Thomas Aquinas, meaning that “whatever its source, truth is of the Holy Spirit.” St. John Paul II quotes it in Fides et Ratio, his papal encyclical on faith and reason.

It’s a simple truth, but a powerful insight. God is capital-T Truth, and all that exists owes its existence to Him. This means that all truth, whether we receive it from an angel or from reading Scripture or from personal encounter or from a science book, is divine in origin. It’s for this reason that JPII can say that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

1. Reason is good, and ordered towards God, since all truth is of the Holy Spirit.

This is the first of four things that I want to share with you today: reason is good, and is ordered towards God. One of the heresies of the Middle Ages was called “double truth,” the idea that something could be true in faith, but false in reason. Catholic scholars would claim, for example, that ‘by faith, from Genesis, we know that the world was created; by reason, from Aristotle, we know that it was not.’ And these scholars tried to hold to this incoherent contradiction by never letting faith and reason touch. But Aquinas and others combated this approach to truth, because they saw it for what it is: an irrational heresy.

Double truth doesn’t work. Truth is one, because reality is integrated. A thing either is true or is it isn’t – you can’t simultaneously accept and reject a particular truth. St. Paul makes this same point in 1 Corinthians, when he says that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” That is, if the historical fact of the Resurrection isn’t true, then your faith is useless.

It’s for this same reason that the Catholic Church has resisted irrational faith. Christians who are afraid of following science where it leads are subtly espousing this same sort of “double truth” heresy, as if science might uncover something that contradicts Christianity. Properly understood science and properly understood Christian teaching can never contradict one another, since truth can’t contradict truth. If they seem to contradict, that should encourage us to deeper inquiry, to see if it’s the science or the faith that we’re misunderstanding.

2. Studiousness is a Virtue that We Ought to Practice

So that’s the first thing that I want to share with you today. All truth points towards God, and we can’t have truth without God. But if this is true, then the corollary is that study, the search for truth, is virtuous. That’s the second point to consider.

Here, we should turn again to St. Thomas Aquinas, who explicitly lists studiousness as a virtue, describing it as a sort of temperance. In talking about the “virtue of study,” or the “virtue of studiousness,” what do we mean by “virtue”? Aquinas describes it as “a good habit bearing on activity.” Every part of that definition is important. First, it’s a habit. If you do a good thing once, that’s not the virtue. When we say someone is a generous person, or (negatively) when we say someone is a liar, we don’t mean that they once gave money to charity, or told a single lie. We mean that they’re in the practice of doing these things. How can you tell if you’ve got a particular virtue? If you enjoy habitually doing the good thing you do.

Second, a virtue is a good habit. If you’ve got an evil habit, that’s a vice.

And third, it’s good habit related to action. Even though a virtue isn’t just “a thing you did once,” it is through doing what we are supposed to do that we build up virtues. If you want to get in the habit of doing something the only way is to do it. If I said “I have a smoking habit, but I haven’t started it yet,” what could that even mean?

So when we’re talking about virtue and vice, there are four stages: the lowest stage is vice – you do wicked things and you enjoy it. Above that is “incontinence,” in which you do wicked things, but don’t want to. Next is continence: you do the right thing, but you don’t want to. That’s better than doing wicked things, but it’s still not the virtue. The virtue, then, is when you do the right thing habitually and enjoy doing it. But to get to the level of virtue, you might have to pass through all of other lower stages.

So if you want the habit of virtue, you need to commit the acts of virtue. Aquinas says that “the act of virtue is nothing else than the good use of free-will.” So another way to think about this whole question is this: God gave me free will. In this area, am I using my free will well, or poorly?

In practical terms, this is important to remember for a few reasons. First, because it means that if you aren’t in the habit of studying, the way to get there is just to start doing it. It may be exhausting and frustrating at first, but keep at it. As you progress in it, it will hopefully get easier. Second, because I don’t want you to get content with dabbling periodically. Let study be a part of who you are, a part of your character. Third, study is virtuous. The word ‘virtue’ comes from the Latin virtus meaning ‘manliness’ or ‘strength.’ We are stronger, and more fully human, when we build up our intellects through study, and when we turn our intellects towards truth. Aristotle defines man as the “rational animal.” What separates us from the rest of animals? Our reason. And so in using our reason in an excellent way through study, we are more fully ourselves.

3. This is Particularly True of Catholic School Teachers, Given Your Unique Calling.

My third point today is that this truth is profoundly important for all of you here, because you are Catholic educators, you are helping to form the next generation of Catholic scholars and Saints. St. John Paul II, in an address to the teachers and students of the Institute of Catholic Education, put it best:

The life of a teacher, as I know from personal experience, is very challenging and demanding, but it is also profoundly satisfying. It is more than a job, for it is rooted in our deepest convictions and values. To be intimately concerned in the development of a young person, of hundreds of young people, is a highly responsible task. As teachers, you kindle in your students a thirst for truth and wisdom. You spark off in them a desire for beauty. You introduce them to their cultural heritage. You help them to discover the treasures of other cultures and peoples. What an awesome responsibility and privilege is yours in the teaching profession.

Now, how are you going to impart a thirst for truth and wisdom and beauty if you don’t have a thirst for truth and wisdom and beauty yourself?

Consider how many of you were inspired by a teacher that you loved in childhood. See how you wanted to emulate their good example. The habit of study is important for all of us to fan into a flame our hunger for knowledge and truth. But you, in a special way, have the opportunity, the privilege, and the duty to be a good example to the next generation, to those souls entrusted to your care and formation.

Perhaps at no point in history has this need for study been as keen as it is now, because in a serious way, the credibility of Christianity hangs (for many believers) on the intellectual credibility of Christian witnesses. Bishop Robert Barron describes his experience, which is similar to my own, and I suspect, to yours:

Again and again, my agnostic, atheist, and secularist interlocutors tell me that faith is credulity, naïvete, superstition, assent to irrational nonsense, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence, etc., etc. And they gladly draw a sharp distinction between faith so construed and modern science, which, they argue, his marked by healthy skepticism, empirical verification, a reliable and repeatable method, and the capacity for self-correction. How fortunate, they conclude, that the western mind was able finally to wriggle free from the constraints of faith and move into the open and well-lighted space of scientific reason. And how sad that, like a ghost from another time and place, faith continues, even in the early twentieth century to haunt the modern mind and to hinder its progress.

You and I know that this atheistic view of faith grossly misunderstands the relationship between faith and reason, and the Christian embrace of reason. But part of the reason for that misunderstanding is because of the bad example of Christians. So in a serious way, a Christian who is willingly ignorant or irrational betrays the Gospel of Jesus Christ by making Christianity seem irrational. And again, this falls upon everyone here with a special intensity, because it is you who are on the front lines. Atheism and secularization is a serious threat for young people, and if we are not forming them (both by instruction and by example) to lives of faith and reason, we will have done them a terrible disservice.

4. Study must be rooted in prayer, and should help us to pray better.

My fourth and final point is on the relationship between study and prayer, and here, I’m grateful that this talk is on the same day as Fr. Matthew’s, and follows after his, because the two subjects are related.

St. Josemaría Escrivá has some of the strongest teachings on studiousness and its place in the Christian life. He warns in The Way, “You pray, you deny yourself, you work in a thousand apostolic activities, but you don’t study. You are useless then unless you change. Study–professional training of whatever type it be–is a grave obligation for us.”

So prayer without study is not enough. But studying without praying is also not enough. St. Bonaventure warns against being satisfied with “reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.” He calls us to go beyond this, “to the groan of praying through Christ crucified, through whose Blood we are purged from the filth of vice.”

St. Josemaría makes this same point, showing how even our study can become a type of prayer. He says, “You have a war-horse called study. You resolve a thousand times to make good use of your time, yet you are distracted by the slightest thing. Sometimes you get annoyed at yourself, because of your lack of willpower, even though you begin again every day.” His solution is simple, but effective: “Have you tried offering up your study for specific apostolic intentions?” It’s with this Christian approach to prayer that this great Saint can write that “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.”

So praying and studying go hand-in-hand. But there’s even more than that: our study should lead us to a deeper appreciation for God. Study that’s oriented towards God ultimately aids both our study and our prayer. Aquinas quotes St. Augustine that “in studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.” The glory of creation – whether we’re looking at the cosmos or the beauty and depth of the human person – points towards the glory of the Creator.

Bishop Barron puts it this way: “God wants us to understand all we can about him through reason. By analyzing the order, beauty, and contingency of the world, there is an enormous amount of “information” we can gather concerning God: his existence, his perfection, the fact that he is endowed with intellect and will, his governance of the universe, etc.”

And finally, studying well helps us to pray well. Here, I want to leave you with an insight of the philosopher Simone Weil, who writes that “The Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.” She goes on to say that “Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”

In other words, you’re not just teaching your students math or science or even religion. You’re also teaching them how to study, how to pay attention, how to listen and learn from reality. We don’t want the students who leave this building to simply be excellent students of geometry or history. We want them, and I want you, to be excellent in the art of attending to reality, of listening and learning from what is real, and of carefully peering the eyes of the soul into reality to discern what is true. It’s this disposition of soul that helps us to pay attention to the Ultimate Reality, God, in prayer.

Significantly, you don’t even have to be brilliant to do this.

“If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover it may very likely be felt besides in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics.”

So, for example, Weil says that “The useless efforts made by the Curé d’Ars [St. John Vianney], for long and painful years, in his attempt to learn Latin bore fruit in the marvellous discernment which enabled him to see the very soul of his penitents behind their words and even their silences.” Saying this, of course, doesn’t discount the working of grace.

But ultimately, one of the greatest reasons to study is to cultivate the joy of learning. Remember earlier that the difference between virtue and mere continence is that the virtuous person enjoys the good acts, because he or she possesses the habit of the virtue. This means that as you cultivate the habit of study all the more, you should hopefully come to an ever-greater joy in studying. And here, Simone Weil points out, we are most prepared for the spiritual life:

“It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed towards God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and he cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often and ardently.”

So now, let us close by asking God to come to our aid, as we conclude: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome Post Joe! Lots to digest and mediate on. So glad we have this in writing to read over. Questions/comments to follow.

  2. Joe,

    You have the knack of consolidating great ideas, great truths, and making them easily understood. Your writing reminds me of articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia that I recently read on the ‘Incarnation’ and The Nature of Sin and Evil. The encyclopedia writers have the same gift as you do… to explain complex subjects and make it available to ordinary minds like my own.

    I’m in agreement with Tron Trihn. This is an awesome article. What swirls through my mind is how the Protestant understanding of the faith, as portrayed in recent comments and posts , doesn’t seem to recognize your statement… “that all truth, whether we receive it from an angel or from reading Scripture or from personal encounter or from a science book, is divine in origin.” And this, I think, is a great difference between theirs, and the Catholic understanding of the faith. The Catholics are more universal in scope, including ALL truth as credible and not only Biblical Truth. And the Catholic understanding is even ‘biblical’ in this, as it allows the Holy Spirit to operate in our souls in ‘real time’ and to accomplish the will of God on a day to day, minute to minute basis. This is how we understand everything in the Gospels to have occurred, that is, as a reality in the lives of those who Jesus interacted with. Every little act and action of the Lord was significant for their lives, even as every grace and act of Divine Providence is for ours at this present time.

    To sum up, I think people underestimate the effects of Divine Providence that occurs in the lives of every person on a minute by minute basis. We are confronted with truth continually in everything we do and think, on a minute by minute basis, and make decisions on out understanding, whether to follow truth or diverge from it. We are offered many graces, and on an minute to minute, hour to hour basis, that of our free will we can accept or reject, and which can have an impact on our entire lives. Each of these offers of Divine Providence from God is sort of like a penny. Many pennies are give every day, and if a person accepts them they accumulate to be a great treasure. If they are rejected, their is spiritual povery and misery.

    Now I’m off to Mass this morning. I want another penny of grace and spirituality in my bank, that God is offering me at this moment. It’s better than turning on the ‘boob tube’ wherein my formerly acquired pennies are often lost.

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