Being a student can be frustrating.
I recently read an article by Emily Stimpson over at Our Sunday Visitor about millennial Catholics. Citing a study suggesting that large numbers of Catholics in my generation are losing their faith, Stimpson highlights the encouraging fact that, of those who are not losing their faith, many are dedicating their lives to spreading it. She goes on to profile six of these young, faithful Catholics, and it was inspiring to read their stories.
As I read the article, I thought to myself, these people are really making a difference; they are, in a very real way, reaching out to their brothers and sisters and bringing them the beauty of the Gospel. This is exactly why I entered the Order of Preachers, but it seems a far cry from what I’m doing now. This summer, I’m spending my afternoons in Spanish class and my evenings watching a sappy (but, for that reason, quite entertaining) Spanish-language series called Destinos. In addition to study and prayer, I spend most of my time in our priory doing various things in support of our liturgical and communal life. Is the work I’m doing really helping the cause of preaching the Gospel for the salvation of souls? Is it really achieving the end that motivated me in the first place?
It is tempting for those of us who are students, or who are in some sort of training or formation program, to answer this question in the negative. We may have a theoretical understanding of how our work is ordered to our mission, but, practically speaking, the connection often seems tenuous. I propose three reasons, however, that we can and should see a deep connection between prayerful study and the goal of spreading the Gospel.
First, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal of our lives is not apostolic productivity, but union with God. If we want this union, we must spend time coming to know Him through prayer and study. These things are not useful by the world’s standards, but are indispensable to our true ultimate goal.
Second, the most effective foundation for a fruitful apostolate is a life of prayer and study as well as faithfulness to the day-to-day responsibilities that God, in His providence, has placed before us. If we do all that we can to know and love God ourselves, we will be well prepared to share the beauty of his truth and his love with others. Though careful planning and technique are certainly important in the apostolic mission, our efforts will be fruitless if they are not rooted in an abiding knowledge and love of God.
This priority is clearly evident in the following passage from Deuteronomy, which is known as the shema and is treasured by Jews and Christians alike:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Dt 6:4–7).
Before we speak of God to others, we must know and love him ourselves with the entirety of our being. This is not to say, of course, that we should wait until we are perfect to speak of God, but rather that the apostolate must be built on the foundation of the knowledge and love of God.
Third, I offer one of our Dominican mottoes: “to contemplate and to hand on to others the fruits of contemplation.” Time spent in prayer, study, and fostering virtue provides not only the foundation, but also the content, for an effective apostolate. Especially in a time when the general currents of intellectual life and social mores run contrary to the Gospel, it is important that we be able to articulate the truths of the faith in a compelling way, from the knowledge of God acquired in prayer and study. This is precisely what we cultivate during periods of religious and academic formation, when we cannot be fully active in the work of the apostolate.
At such times we must trust in God’s providence—trust that if we are faithful in attending to the tasks and the people God has placed before us, He will use us, perhaps in ways we will never know, for the building up of his kingdom.
Image: Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation