By Frank Wessling
It’s an old joke that more fervent praying is done in schools on test days than in churches on any day. This may be true.
But something else is more true: what school children, and students of any age, are supposed to be doing is prayer-like in itself. Study and prayer share a similar spirit of openness, or surrender, to the subject.
As the school year begins, let us seriously pray that this spirit be with children everywhere. As it leads to sainthood it also leads to deep learning and wisdom.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th-century founder of the Jesuits and an extraordinary student, prayed this way:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess you have given me: I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.
This prayer of surrender sounds like too much, and is even frightening to modern ears. It seems to give away the entire self, leaving nothing; it feels like dying. Look again, though, and there is a definite “I” in the prayer. Ignatius doesn’t disappear as he surrenders to God. He acknowledges himself as the work of God, though, not a self-creation, and asks only for a radical submission to the source of his life in order to have its fullness.
He has to ask because such submission doesn’t come easily. The ego is always working. There is always something we already “know” that sets up interference. The teacher or someone else in the room isn’t perfectly in tune with what we need. The imagination is fertile and easily distracted. In study as in prayer, we have to frequently reset our intention, our focus, on the subject. Ignatius shows a way to do that without reservation.
The topic of surrender or submission came up recently in the political campaign of Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann. She has said that she turned her law studies a certain way at the direction of her husband, and did so because of St. Paul’s directive that wives “submit” to their husbands. When asked about that by reporters, Bachmann said that to her, such submission means “respect.”
It’s very hard to make subtle theological points in the rough and tumble whirlwind of electoral politics. Bachmann can be excused for running from a word that would make her an object of ridicule across much of the political spectrum.
But the language in chapter five of the Letter to the Ephesians is not about something as tame as respect. Paul is pointing out there how radical the change is when we attach ourselves to Christ. We relate to one another as he does, we love as he does, we identify with each other as he does, which means giving up our lives for each other. He does not write simply that wives must submit to their husbands. The controlling directive is one of mutual submission: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
This may all be hard sayings in politics but it has relevance in the school room. A subject may be learned to some extent because it’s respected. But it won’t be absorbed and become an integral part of the student’s knowing way in the world without submission, or surrender, to it, trusting its method as well as the content.
An intimate relationship is more fulfilling in any context, personal, religious, learning.
In his little book “Faith Maps,” Father Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, writes, “Christian prayer means relaxing into the reality of being loved by God, in order to rise, each day, into the gritty realism of loving.” Something similar could be said about study: it means relaxing into the good of new knowledge in order to rise better fit for gritty reality.
The pray-er and the student are both engaged in life-defining work. What’s best is when they are the same person. This need not wait for adulthood, as it did for Ignatius. Children can do it, and continue growing in both dimensions.