The Wood of the Desk: Offering the Sacrifice of Study

January 21, 2021

Back when I was still a theology student I once had a dream. I walked through some large holy doors, the main front doors, of a large old Gothic Church or Cathedral and two saints came to greet me. They were St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Theresa of Kolkata (Mother Theresa). I was struck by their stark differences. First there was their appearances. Thomas Aquinas was a relatively large man at over six feet tall and around three-hundred pounds and donning a black cappa over his white habit. Mother Theresa stood at five foot even and slender from her fasting in her white sari with blue stripes. Not only were their appearances drastically different but also the “style” of their spirituality and holiness were night and day. Aquinas was a contemplative, a scholar who read and wrote just about every day of his life. Mother Theresa would spend ten to twelve hours a day in labor for the poorest of the poor. But I think most striking of all was not their differences but their similarities. As I looked at them they then turned to look at each other with the same joy-filled smile, Mother Theresa looking up, Thomas Aquinas looking down but yet equal in beatitude and holiness. They are both venerated saints, looked to as examples of Christian life. They both offer examples of love and paths to God.

Throughout Christian history, the saints have offered their lives in service to the Gospel. Whether it be the “red martyrdom” of being killed and persecuted for the faith, or the “white martyrdom” of life-long fidelity and heroic efforts in adversity, every saint is holy precisely because in one way or another they offered their lives, work, will, efforts, “joys and sufferings” to God. This offering of their lives has come in more overt ways such as in Mother Theresa and Francis of Assisi who embraced poverty voluntarily and committed to being spiritual “life jackets” serving and lifting others up from their miseries in various fashions. However, there is a strand of spirituality in the rich tapestry of the communion of saints that offers their intellectual gifts in service to the Gospel that I think needs to be reclaimed by more people, lay and clergy alike, in the Church.

I am not saying that everyone needs to become cloistered contemplative theologians whose sole occupation is prayer and writing, but every saint offers their “expertise” as something to be incorporated in little ways in our own lives. St. Francis gave himself to extreme penances to show the Church that God, who provides for the birds and flowers, most certainly will provide for His people. Mother Theresa who left for India to serve the poorest of the poor, reminds us that we can serve the poor in our midst by in some way becoming a little poorer ourselves. With regard to the intellectual heritage of the Church, there are heroes who gave their lives to study so that we can enjoy the fruits of their labor today. But first a quick word on how this manner of service is an important part of the life of the Church.

Listening always comes before acting. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Luke 8:21). Whether in individual acts or over the course of one’s entire life the pattern has been listen then respond. Human nature really demonstrates this well, much more so than any other animal. Human beings are dependent upon their parents for over a decade, listening, observing, and learning before finally becoming independent adults. It is the same in life in the order of grace. On top of the time it takes just to learn to be human, it takes years of making the persistent choice of listening to God’s word to grow in likeness to God’s Son–the calling of every Christian. Like Christ, such become “adults” in the household of God. “And he replied, ‘Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old’” (Matthew 13:52). Those who have learned about the kingdom of heaven, the sacramental economy, and the ways of the Spirit, are responsible for helping others in their community to consume God’s Word, digest it, and make it a part of their everyday living. This dynamic is most crucial with regard to the Eucharist, the precious “bread of angels” and spiritual food that nourishes us for eternal life. And Jesus says in his final prayer in the presence of his disciples, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). It is the role of “those with insight” to lead others to that salvific knowledge of God (cf. Daniel 12:3).

The prayer of study, the eighth of nine ways of prayer according to St. Dominic, deserves a place in the lives of all the Church’s people. Even if in just some small manner, such prayer will greatly benefit the soul and the Church as a whole. While study need not necessitate the study of the bible (saint writings, church documents, theologies, or even philosophy and science writings if done with a view to truth are on the table with regard to “study”), Pope Francis has recently and wisely emphasized the study of scripture and exhorted the Church to reclaim her intellectual heritage regarding it. And given its wide availability and the state of literacy among members today, everyone who reads this post has access to some manner of reading scripture and a helpful commentary. It does not take much for a great effect. All it takes is maybe five minutes less of scrolling to make room for five minutes of reading and study, online or in hardcopy, per day or even week.

During this time when many places are still asked to be in shutdown and public worship at mass is not as available as it should be, this is all the more reason to buckle down and take a page from the ancient hermits and anchorites. There is time and we have the time to hear God’s Word–God’s call to life and beatitude–even in the midst of a pandemic and political turmoil. This is the best time to come “to know the only true God and the one whom [He] sent, Jesus Christ.”

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