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

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.

James Houston’s “Lord, help me to forget myself” and Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

In another clip from the Biola Center for Christian Thought, James Houston Comments: “Many times we have to ask God for unconscious self-forgetfulness about what we are doing, and the difficulty about our professional life is that it is all self-conscious activity”:

What a liberation it is to forget self in this way. There is a sense in which it is deliciously counter-cultural in an academic world that is all about making a name for myself. There is also a sense in which self-forgetfulness is, in fact, what everyone is searching for anyway, through notions like flow or optimum experience, and which we can only truly find in God (see my post on Tim Keller’s reading of 1 Corinthians 1).

Houston’s comments here resonate with what Keller sketches in The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

A prayer of Brother Lawrence

I turn my little omelet in the fire for the love of God. When it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and worship my God, who gave me this grace to make it, after which I arise happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough to have picked up a straw for the love of God. People look for ways of learning how to love God. They hope to attain it by I know not how many different practices. They take much trouble to abide in his presence by varied means. Is it not a shorter and more direct way to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the tasks one’s lot in life demands to show him that love, and to maintain his presence within by the communion of our heart with his, there is nothing complicated about it. One has only to turn to it honestly and simply.

A Prayer of Samuel Logan Brengle

Keep me, O Lord, from waxing mentally and spiritually dull and stupid. Help me to keep the physical, mental and spiritual fibre of the athlete, of the man who denies himself daily and takes up his cross and follows Thee. Give me good success in my work, but hide pride from me. Save me from the complacency that so frequently accompanies success and prosperity. Save me from the spirit of sloth, of self-indulgence, as physical infirmities and decay creep upon me.

Turning George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ into an academic prayer

George HerbertAs well as writing my own academic prayers I love the economy and precision of phrase in good poetry and find that it makes great prayer material as well. One of my favourite poems-cum-prayers is The Elixir, by George Herbert. It captures beautifully the spirit of Colossians 3:17 and 23-4:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  […] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Amen! The poem is also in its own right one great answer to the question ‘How does being a Christian make a difference to the work and life of an academic?

THE ELIXIR

TEACH me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into action ;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake ;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine :
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold ;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

More academic prayers

Previosuly I shared a prayer I had written that related to the ‘context’ point of the contacts-context-content triangle.

Here are two further prayers, one for each of the remaining two points:

Contacts:

Lord, thank you for the joy of working with others. Please give me grace now to rejoice in the excellence of others, not envying or despising them; please grant me to be an encouragement to colleagues, and help me to love and respect those about whom I am writing, for Jesus’ sake.

Content:

Father, I want to seek to understand this material now in a way that is true to your word and character, that does not lie or perpetuate myth, yet I cannot, unless your Spirit works in me to give me insight. So please teach me to use the gifts you have given me now, Lord, to understand and respond in a way that bears a true witness to who I am before you. For Jesus’ sake.