Here at Harvard, we’re now approaching the end of the term. It’s usually around this time that I really start losing my motivation, where hours that should be spent studying for my Statistics midterm are instead wasted reading a novel I picked up at the Coop. Now, I know that’s not exactly a total waste of time, but still… Considering what I pay per semester in tuition, the least I can do is make myself study. So, in search of inspiration and any motivation whatsoever, I decided to make my most recent bout of procrastination at least slightly productive by picking through my (rather meager) library of religious and inspirational texts.
I came across my copy of Waiting for God, a collection of religious philosopher Simone Weil’s letters and essays. I read the entire book last term for a class, and one essay in particular stuck with me, given my status as a student: Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God. This essay really motivated me to work after I read it last term; it had the same effect when I read it this semester, and I hope that it has a similar effect on you.
What I always find especially striking and beautiful about the essay is that, from the beginning, it is grounded in prayer. Weil says that studying requires attention not unlike prayer, and that we need to make that explicit connection to be successful in our academic pursuits. School studies are the essence of our Christian exercises in faith: “School children and students who love God should never say: ‘For my part I like mathematics;’ ‘I like French;’ ‘I like Greek.’ They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer” (Weil 57-58). As Christians, we should approach our academic study and our spiritual development with the same ardor and dedication–certainly advice that is difficult in practice but beautiful and incredibly useful in theory.
The only thing that I find difficult to swallow is Weil’s condition that students study without regard for their grades. The only response readers are left with is to protest that she was particularly brilliant, and that it is easy for her to dole out this kind of guidance, but it’s good advice all the same: “Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer” (59). For Weil, learning is about the process, not the end goal. Learning never ends anyway, so why strive for a temporary good mark, especially when your studying results in nothing but an exceptional ability to do well on tests? Though her advice is certainly not revolutionary, she makes a beautiful connection to faith and prayer with which all Christians can connect.
I don’t have much else to say, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes that will hopefully bring the same inspiration to you as they brought to me:
“The best support for faith is the guarantee that if we ask our Father for bread, he does not give us a stone. Quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” (58-59)
“Above all it is thus that we can acquire the virtue of humility, and that is a far more precious treasure than all academic progress. From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin.” (60)
“It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He comes only to those who ask him to come; and he cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently.” (61)
“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.” (62)
Good luck if you have studies, difficult work projects, or anything requiring intense focus ahead. I know I’ll be asking for God’s help; as Weil points out, He “cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often, and ardently.”
If you want to pick up a copy and read it for yourself, here’s the bibliographical information:
Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009.