The Life of the Mind: Intensive Study as an Act of Worship

Georgetown University Professor Emeritus, Father James V. Schall, authored a marvelous book entitled The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking. Just the title was enough to give me shivers of anticipation when I first read it on a doctoral course syllabus. I had an inkling of the experience that awaited me, since previously, I had read Fr. Schall’s excellent work, The Order of Things. My expectations were exceeded, and The Life of the Mind is now on my top ten list of most recommended books.

Photo from my personal library--The Great Books of the Western World
Photo from my personal library–The Great Books of the Western World

In chapter 2, “Books and the Intellectual Life,” Fr. Schall discusses the importance of creating a bookish culture in the home—investing in a quality personal library (which he offers some guidance on) and thoroughly reading the books one owns with discernment and a spirit of eager desire for knowledge. “I think we ought also to read ceaselessly,” he says. “Reading, indeed, can itself be a form of prayer.”

Dozens of times I’ve been asked how I find the time to read and study as much as I do, and I usually give a very incomplete answer. “Oh, I don’t leave my house often, and I don’t watch much television.” Both are true, but the more important answer, the one I’ve been shy about articulating at any length, is that reading and intensive study are how I best worship. When I read Fr. Schall’s statement about reading being a form of prayer, I felt a great sense of affirmation.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Bible study in particular (though that is most certainly included). I experience a soul-state of worshipfulness when reading all sorts of things, from Pascal to Tolkien to Nicomachus to Shel Silverstein. Truth can be found in all kinds of literature! The early church fathers often talked about gathering God’s wisdom from far and wide, including from the works of non-Christian writers. Just as the Hebrews carried off the treasures of the Egyptians and used them to construct the Temple, so we are to seek and take truth from wherever we find it, pressing it into service for Christendom.

Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.), in his essay “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” uses a metaphor that I particularly love (because of the origin of my first name). He says we are like bees, testing flower after flower, taking only the sweet, quality nectar for our honey-making and leaving the rest behind.

So, yes, intellectual work is time and energy-consuming, but it is essential to cultivating a robust Christian mind. Why not begin thinking of reading and deep study as forms of worship? No one ever says, “Oh I just don’t have enough hours in the day to worship.” This is my encouragement to you, whether you have yet to embark upon the perilous but joyful journey of loving God with your mind, or if you simply needed a fresh perspective on that insatiable book obsession.

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