A prayer of Bishop Charles Slattery: Almighty God, thank Thee for the job of this day…

Charles Lewis Slattery

A prayer of Bishop Charles Lewis Slattery (1867-1930):

Almighty God, thank Thee for the job of this day.
May we find gladness in all its toil and difficulty,
its pleasure and success,
and even in its failure and sorrow.
Would we look always away from ourselves,
and behold the glory and the need of the world
that we may have the will and the strength to bring
the gift of gladness to others;
that with them we stand to bear
the burden and heat of the day
and offer Thee the praise of work well done.

Amen

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Be careful what you pray for, Christian scholar

In our prayers as Christian scholars we will often find ourselves asking for wisdom, knowledge, depth of insight, and understanding. But do we realise that with the granting of these gifts comes an increased responsibility?

Now let me say right at the beginning of this post that this truth is not unique to gifts of the mind. There is nothing particularly spiritual or exalted about being a great academic over, for example, being a great carpenter or a great carer for an elderly relative. Those who work with ideas have no advantage (and no disadvantage either, let it be said) in God’s economy over those who work with their hands or in any other business. However, given that the focus of this blog is on the Christian scholar, I will make particular application to the academic vocation here.

The idea that the granting of increased wisdom and insight implies a greater responsibility can be extrapolated from the conclusion to Jesus’s parable of the two servants:

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Luke 12:48

In other words, the more we know the more we are expected to use that knowledge wisely. Now of course Jesus is speaking here of knowledge of the Father’s will, and that must be the primary application of the passage, but as a secondary application we are also well served to examine the use we are making for God of all the wisdom he has given us. Academics are supposed to know a great deal about certain matters, so it behooves us to ask the question of what we are doing with that knowledge.

The same can be said of the conclusion to the chilling parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (an “R-rated” conclusion if ever there was one):

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25:26-30

From both these passages, as I understand them, it is right to draw the conclusion that we are responsible before God for all that he has given us, and that Christian scholars are therefore responsible before God for how we use the knowledge and wisdom he grants us in our academic endeavours.

Reflecting the truths of the biblical passages above, this section from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ makes sobering reading, I think, for any Christian academic:

EVERY man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars. He who knows himself well becomes mean in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by men.
If I knew all things in the world and had not charity, what would it profit me before God Who will judge me by my deeds?
Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise.
Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God.
The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?
If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

Now we may want to question some of what Thomas writes here. For example, the injunction that “he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise” seems to sit uncomfortably with what the bible says about the chokmah of Solomon, to take just one example. Perhaps a better sentiment would be Augustine’s prayer in Confessions X, 40 that “He loves thee too little who loves anything together with thee that he loves not for thy sake”. With that caveat, however, I find that this passage from The Imitation has a sobering message for Christian academics and ought to lead to much self-reflection: “The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. ”

Are we really ready for God to answer our prayers for more wisdom and insight?

Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before working

AquinasI recently came across the following prayer of Thomas Aquinas on the Intervarsity site. The “Dumb Ox” is said to have recited it before he began working or preaching. The Intervarsity site expurgated lines 2-7 as the prayer is printed here, perhaps because of a possible confusion over angelic hierarchies. I have re-inserted them because they remind us of God’s immensity as we sit down to what, by comparison with His universe-creating work, are our infinitesimally small tasks.

Ineffable Creator
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvellous order
above the fiery heavens,
and have marshalled the regions of the universe
with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.
You Who are true God and true Man,
Who live and reign, world without end.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Published in the Raccolta #764, Pius XI Studiorum Ducem, 1923.

 

The prayer can also be found, in part, in an alternative and much freer translation here:

Ineffable Creator,
You who are the true source of life and wisdom and the Principle on which everything depends, be so kind as to infuse in my obscure intelligence a ray of your splendor that may take away the darkness of sin and ignorance.
Grant me keenness of understanding, ability to remember, measure and easiness of learning, discernment of what I read, rich grace with words.
Grant me strength to begin well my studies; guide me along the path of my efforts; give them a happy ending.
You who are true God and true Man, Jesus my Savior, who lives and reigns forever.
Amen

A Scholar’s Prayer by Adam Omelianchuk, from First Things Magazine

Here’s a prayer that originally appeared on the First Things site, where it comes with the following description: “A university faculty prayer inspired by the Chorister’s Prayer of the Royal College of Church Music. Adapted by the CS Lewis Foundation”. The prayer echoes themes from Jeremiah 29:7, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” and, I think, Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer”.

Bless, O Lord, us your servants,
Who are called to scholarly vocations.
Grant that what we apprehend with our minds
and profess through our words
May be grounded in truth
and offered confidently
with humility
to the greater good and well being
of our students, our colleagues,
our academic communities
and the world at large,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Amen

The academic prayer life: how to be more colourful and adventurous than just “make me successful”

Rembrandt, St. Jerome Kneeling in Prayer, Looking Down

As with all of our prayers (or mine at least) there is a tendency, when we pray about our work, simply to spiritualise the values of the culture around us and pray for what everyone in our lab or department wants, be they Christian or not. This usually means praying for some combination of success, ease and recognition. We can find ourselves voicing prayers that run something like “Lord, please help me to do this work well”, “please grant me success with this presentation or paper” or “please would my paper get accepted.” Sound familiar?

Is it that we should never pray prayers like this? Not at all; Jesus is the Lord of the whole of life and he has an interest in all we are and do: the adiaphora, the matters of middling importance and the crucial decisions alike. Nevertheless, when we pray for success or recognition it would be a healthy habit to check our motivations and ask ourselves whether our prayers are compatible with seeking first God’s kingdom (not our own), and doing his will (not our own). As with so much in the Christian life, it comes down to motivations. Why do I want to be successful? If the answer yields a reason that has nothing  to do with God’s glory, values or priorities, then perhaps I need to rethink that prayer, and stop treating the sovereign God of the universe as my day-to-day personal servant.

An academic prayer life that always circles around questions of meeting deadlines, success, and recognition, is a very monochrome palette with which to try to paint a vibrant and rich relationship with God. So here are just a few suggestions to widen the colour spectrum of our academic prayer life. For more ideas, see the earlier post on the academic prayer life, and the prayers and prayer life category.

  • “Lord, help me to see your glory/justice/compassion/beauty/unfathomable nature in this equation/theory/specimen/novel/data, and give me the spiritual lungs to praise you for it.”
  • “Thank you, heavenly Father, for the opportunity to exercise the gifts you have given me in this context in which I find myself.”
  • “Lord, if I completely abandoned my agenda for today and at each point did what you most want me to do, please show me what today would look like, and give me the courage to do it.”
  • “Lord, please show me how I can be working for the welfare of this place today (Jer 29:7).”
  • “Lord, as I busy myself with this work today, please be working on me by your Holy Spirit through your Word, shaping my character and growing in me the fruit of the Spirit in the way that I respond to setbacks and frustrations, to success and to flattery, and to the everyday challenges and joys of the academic life.”

I’m sure there are many more ways than these to broaden the academic prayer palette. Please feel free to add more ideas in the comments box below.

Let’s read Pascal (20): Pascal’s description of faith

Let's Read Pascal

In view of the discussion on this week’s Unbelievable radio programme between Peter Boghossian (author of A Manual for Creating Atheists) and Tim McGrew, and the subsequent exchanges on twitter and elsewhere, it is pertinent that in blogging through Pascal’s Pensées I should reach number 265 today:

Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.

Pascal, Pensées 265

Let’s read Pascal (19): A fascinating insight into Pascal’s apologetic method

Let's Read Pascal

Pensée 246 provides a fascinating insight into Pascal’s apologetic method, and into the order he had in mind for the final version of the material we know as the Pensées:

246

—After the letter That we ought to seek God, to write the letter On removing obstacles; which is the discourse on “the machine,” on preparing the machine, on seeking by reason.

I take it from this brief thought that Pascal set out first to convince the non-believer that they ought to seek God, and only then did he proceed to remove obstacles to belief, before stressing the importance of custom in belief (which Pascal refers to as “the machine” or “the automaton”) and, finally, seeking God by reason. I find Pascal’s order compelling, but strangely alien to much contemporary apologetic practice. Placing first the injunction under which we stand to seek God mirrors the order of the climax of Paul’s Areopagus address:

Acts 17:29-31  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  30  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

First, Paul stresses God’s command that all repent, and only then does he introduce the proof of the resurrection.

When we lead off in apologetics with “seeking by reason”, I think Pascal would say that we are doing a disservice to our hearers.

Let’s read Pascal (18): Pascal and the misplaced awe of the new atheists

Let's Read Pascal

There has been not a little talk in new atheistic circles recently about the appropriateness of wonder and awe in a universe without God. Much of the rhetoric comes down to saying something to the effect of “atheists can feel awe too”, which no Christian should want to deny: one does not need to believe in God in order to benefit from his gifts. The question hangs not over whether the atheist feels awe, but over whether the atheist’s feeling of awe has an appropriate object within her view of the world. Pascal cuts to the quick of this issue in pensée 194. The whole thought is well worth reading and reflecting on; here I reproduce only the closing sentences.

194

Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?