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Child in the woods examining a twig

Giving God Our Attention

Learning the Virtue of Studiousness

Sr. Dominic Mary Heath

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  • Andy Wilson

    Wow ! Thankyou Snr Dominic Mary Heath . . . . For using your spiritual gift of teaching. You have cleared my eyes as if you had removed my cataracts. This year,the simple work of gardening on our vegetable allotment in Croglin has brought me such peace and fulfilment, as well as the joy of sharing wth others that I feel I have been shown that bookish study must be linked with sensory and material learning. My allotment 'learning' reminds me of what I remember the philosopher, Bertrand Russell writing :- " I am surrounded by learned men insisting that happiness is impossible, but daily confronted by my gardener proving the opposite ! "

Curiosity is a sin. But what about our inborn desire to understand things – is that all bad? No, said Thomas Aquinas: it comes from God and can lead us to him. Aquinas had a name for it: studiousness. This virtue isn’t just for scholars – it matters just as much to mechanics, outdoorsmen, and artisans. And in the end, it belongs most of all to the childlike.

On a cloister wall in Florence there’s an old, fifteenth-century fresco of Dominic de Guzmán. The Spanish saint, founder of the Dominican Order, sits in a posture of easy grace, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. His attentive gaze draws our eyes to the object he holds – an open book. Dominic is at study.

The portrait is idyllic, charming even. It’s also misleading. The real drama of the painting takes place in the plane beyond Dominic’s figure. There we see Christ crowned with thorns, blindfolded, and mocked. Spittle streams toward his face, while the hands of unseen assailants hang in midair – ­impossibly – heightening the inhumanity of the scene. In the foreground opposite Dominic sits the sorrowful Virgin, her own eyes cast down and heavy with grief.

The effect of Fra Angelico’s Mocking of Christ is stunning, but also confusing. For a contemporary audience it raises a real problem: What does study have to do with holy sorrow?

Most of us will have a hard time answering this question because the world in which we live has forgotten something Dominic and the medievals knew, something about the very human act of study. What we’ve lost, in fact, is the virtue of studiousness. And there are very good reasons for Christians in particular to be concerned with its recovery.

As the religion of the Word made flesh, Christianity consecrates the human intellectual life in a unique way. But not all Christians are aware of this, others aren’t quite convinced, and very few have any idea where to begin. But the virtue of studiousness shouldn’t be strange and intimidating to us. It should be as familiar as our own creatureliness.

Our Need-to-Know Basis

Each one of us has a natural desire for knowledge that has nothing to do with whether we consider ourselves the intellectual type or pride ourselves on being readers. Our desire for knowledge is fundamentally human and so deeply seated that Saint Thomas Aquinas – a spiritual son of Dominic – compares it to the body’s desire for its own natural goods: just as the body craves food and sex, the soul craves knowledge. In fact, because the soul is the highest, and governing, part of us, its desires are arguably greater and more urgent than those of the body. Put simply, we really, really want to know things.

This is where study comes in. Study is the keen application of the mind to truth. It is the way we feed our hunger for knowledge. And because this desire is God-given, study itself shares in the urgency of our lifelong search for happiness. Unless we apply our minds to truth, we will never be happy.

The idea that study leads to happiness may seem far-fetched to anyone who has never been happy while studying. The fact is that most of us think of study as something we really ought to do, something we wish we enjoyed, or something that would make us better versions of ourselves. In other words, we think study is for the mind what routine exercise is for the body – an amoral exertion with no lasting value. If this were true, study would make us happy like being in good shape makes us “happy.” And, currently, some of us might feel either a little guilty, or a little self-satisfied, about our level of performance.

It may surprise us, then, to learn that, in the Christian vision of things, study is neither a personal lifestyle choice nor a habit of self-care – it’s a moral virtue.

Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ, fresco, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ, fresco, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. View Larger
Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Virtue Called Studiousness

This brings us to studiousness, which is, technically, the word we want when talking about study as a moral virtue. For most of us, “studiousness” probably has associations with dusty books, library stacks, and pale-faced scholars who seldom see the light of day. Basically, studiousness sounds a lot like diligence, concentration, and hard work. And, in a sense, studiousness is these things – but only in a secondary sense. This is a fascinating insight we get from Aquinas.

According to Aquinas, the virtue of studiousness is, indirectly, a spur to the body whose natural weakness and desire for comfort would otherwise keep the mind from pursuing its own proper work. But studiousness is not primarily about getting the body to try harder. Instead, it is properly concerned with getting the will to desire correctly. And since it has to do with our desire for knowledge in particular, studiousness is the moral virtue that attracts us to what is worth knowing (the true and good) and, conversely, repels us from what is not (the false and perverted).

This is why Aquinas can say that studiousness is actually a kind of temperance – temperance for the mind. Just as the virtue of temperance is a habit of moderating our natural appetite for bodily pleasure, studiousness is a habit of moderating our natural desire for knowledge. Self-imposed moderation of this sort doesn’t mean censorship or close-mindedness. It means that studiousness – like every moral virtue – inclines us to what is reasonable, while reason itself directs us to what is good. In other words, studiousness makes us happy by making us, actually, good.

Because studiousness directs our minds to good things in the right measure, it allows us to develop a taste for what is truly ­interesting in the world around us – say, Homer’s Iliad or the principles of algebraic ­topology – and a dislike for what is merely titillating, sensational, or distracting. Without studiousness, our otherwise wholesome desire for knowledge would fall into the crude distortions that characterize the vice of curiosity. Some things are worth knowing, other things may not be worth knowing, and still others are definitely not worth knowing.

That’s the reason we can’t talk about study without also talking about our creatureliness. Creatureliness presumes an order inherent in the very nature of things and a goal that attracts all our desires. By directing our natural desire for knowledge toward this goal, studiousness brings a particular beauty to the soul, the beauty of spiritual clarity. It endows the soul with the same “moderate and fitting proportion” that characterizes all fundamentally honest things.footnote It makes us more fully human, more ourselves.

Put this way, studiousness is really very attractive. And already we can anticipate an opening for the spiritual dimension of the human person. What, after all, do we mean by “an order inherent in the very nature of things”? Toward what goal is studiousness directing us? As it turns out, there are competing, and even contradictory, answers to these questions.

Can Studiousness Lead Us to God?

Secular modernity has its own beliefs about the order inherent in the very nature of things, and the first of these assumptions is that there are no spiritual natures in things. Its view of the human person is essentially materialistic and, consequently, individualistic. That’s why its moral code can so seamlessly unite relativism to utilitarianism: Do what you want! But be useful! Even if we resist the idea that humans are only matter, the fact is that all of us have been shaped by these deep-set cultural imperatives.

A materialist, therapeutic culture like this can give only two reasons for study. Study is either a way for each of us to express our own distinctive personality or a way for us to produce something useful for the world. Ideally, it’s both. This explains, for example, why higher education today has become an increasingly bizarre mash-up of obscure fields of study on the one hand and highly technical, professional degrees on the other. Cafeteria-style education – seemingly all-pervasive – makes perfect sense if the order inherent in the very nature of things is actually a dictatorship of our material and psycho­logical urges.

Studiousness in this context is a “virtue” only in the sense that it is a habit we need to achieve our cultural goals of originality and self-sufficiency. Studiousness, understood as a virtue directing us toward a moral goal we call “the Good,” is essentially lost.

Not surprisingly, Christianity has a very different understanding of the order inherent in things than does secular modernity. That order, set in the sinews of creation, accords with the pattern of the eternal Logos: the intelligibility of reality reveals to us the eternal Word of God (Prov. 8:22–31). That’s why Christianity also offers us a very different model of human flourishing: Human persons are not the sum of our merely biological and psychological parts. Our wants are not only material and emotional. Instead, our deepest desires flow from the highest part of us, the rational soul which has been created ad imago Dei and is capable of union with God by grace. This means that, even though we have many legitimate desires for transitory goods in life, what each of us really, truly wants is to pay attention to God. And paying attention to God is perhaps the best definition we can give, not only of the goal of studiousness, but also of that prayer called contemplation.

Contemplation is not a waste of time – it’s a supremely good use of time.

Essentially, contemplation is the goal of study just as rest is the goal of activity. Used in this sense, rest doesn’t mean a kind of exhaustion or listless emptiness. The mind in the act of contemplation is said to rest because it finally possesses, and therefore enjoys, what it has eagerly sought. When the lover sees the beloved, frenetic and discursive activity ceases and amazement begins.

What Christianity understands, and pragmatic modernity cannot grasp, is that contemplation is not a waste of time – it’s a supremely good use of time. In contemplation we participate in what the Christian philosopher Josef Pieper calls, “the loving, yearning, affirming bent toward that happiness which is the same as God himself, and which is the aim and purpose of all that happens in the world.”footnote In other words, even our finite, temporal contemplation drifts steadily toward the eternal. That’s why, according to Pieper, there are no “nonreligious” forms of contemplation in this world. All contemplation is holy contemplation. This side of heaven, contemplation is a heady mix of loving wonder and “unease in the face of the unattainable.”footnote

But if Christianity is right on this point – if our creaturely desire for knowledge is, fundamentally, a desire to contemplate God – study itself is elevated to a new plane. It’s no longer a boutique commodity for the privileged and self-indulgent or a practical tool for the ambitious and self-reliant. It’s not even a method of self-mastery for the perfectionist. Instead, study is a diligent search made in anticipation of finding God. And this search takes us through the entire created order, through the hierarchy of things “visible and invisible,” until we learn to pay attention to God in our own hearts.

Studiousness understood in this sense, as the virtue that holds the soul’s attention to God and to all true things for God’s sake, is clearly much more than bookishness. A mind directed to God is a mind disposed for contemplative wonder; it has a particular “veneration for concrete reality”footnote because it seeks the divine meaning behind everything it sees. Study has value precisely because it leads beyond itself, through contemplation, to God. This is how it makes us happy.

Child in the woods examining a twig Photograph from Taproot Nature Experience. Used with permission.

Mind and Body

The problem for most of us is that when we’re told “happiness is contemplation,” what we actually hear is “happiness is disembodied.” And we simply can’t get excited about the prospect of studying for the sake of contemplation because we know, intuitively, that real human happiness never excludes the body. That’s why we should already be asking how realistic the virtue of studiousness is for real, embodied people: Doesn’t study require a lot of time, silence, and solitude? Is it really so human after all?

This critique would be fair if “studying” began only when we decided to sit down and thoughtfully think thoughts. This is how we usually imagine it. In actual fact, however, study starts with our five senses. Aquinas says that we “derive knowledge through sensibles,”footnote meaning that the body itself initiates the process of study through sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. This is just common sense, but it’s also wonderful news: it means that the virtue of studiousness can be found in as many places, and in as many modes, as knowledge itself is found. And it means that (despite Descartes) studiousness can never be detached from the body.

Another way of saying this is that studiousness begins whenever we begin to observe what is. Whenever we pay attention to what is in front of us, we allow ourselves to be attracted to the good that is present in that thing. And we already know how studiousness moderates our natural desire for knowledge – by attracting us to the good according to reason. An essential part of studiousness, therefore, is precisely this embodied capacity to receive the world around us.

We don’t have to read textbooks to experience this kind of studious absorption in reality. We can approach nature studiously whenever we see (smell, taste, touch, or hear) biological life unfolding. We can approach human community studiously whenever we observe meaningful patterns in history, politics, literature, or culture. We can approach the mechanical sciences studiously whenever we pay attention to the amazing way things work. And we can approach the Christian faith itself studiously whenever we immerse ourselves in the sacred words of scripture and the sacred actions of liturgy.

If, in a real sense, studiousness makes demands on our bodies (time, attention, tranquility), this is only because it is carving out space in our lives for the truly human acts of reverence, delight, and praise. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that study belongs to the professionals. In actual fact, it belongs to the childlike. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God all around them.

Study and Service

It’s purity of heart that enables us to see God in a world where contemplation is wounded by sin: we cannot study creation without being moved by God’s own compassion for it. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised when studiousness places real demands on us – demands of service.

Studiousness drives service, not in order to make creation more pleasing or useful to a consumer culture, but in order to conform creation to God’s own, true idea of it. The discrepancy between the way God knows the world to be from eternity and the way the world is now through sin is why the truly studious will inevitably experience holy sorrow: there is a kinship here between the joy of contemplation and the tenderness of compassion that materialism will never fathom. Studying the wonderful design of the human body, for example, reminds us how disfiguring sickness is. And studying the qualities of a just society brings to light disintegration in our own communities. But this holy grief is not pessimism: it’s the wound in us from which all the works of mercy flow out into the world.

Study doesn’t belong to the professionals. It belongs to the childlike.

Mercy, after all, begins when we take the needs of another as our own needs and their misery as our misery. It moves us to do for the “least of these” what we would do for ourselves. But to offer more than artificial consolation, mercy must know the truth about the world, the human person, and the Creator. Mercy needs studiousness. And studiousness, rather than providing an escape from the world in God, teaches us how to return into God for the sake of the world.

This orientation to merciful service is why study just looks different inside Christianity – why, in fact, it looks a lot like Dominic’s contemplation of the suffering Christ. Christianity, after all, doesn’t hawk a nondescript deity or a generic sense of god-dependency. It reveals a God who is at once intensely Trinitarian and, in the Person of the Eternal Word, really incarnate. In Christ, God takes a human face. And to contemplate this face is to be conformed to Mercy himself.

What is ultimately so extraordinary about Fra Angelico’s Mocking of Christ is that the painting counters the human cruelty that desecrates Christ’s face with a human love that contemplates this same face. It’s as though one man’s study repairs another man’s sin. It’s as though study has a role to play in redeeming the world. It’s as though we need the virtue of studiousness to expand the kingdom of God in our own hearts and in creation.

If we really believed this, we would be willing to give God that most precious gift – our attention.

Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ, detail. Saint Dominic de Guzmán reads the story of Jesus’ Passion while Mary grieves. Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ, detail. Saint Dominic de Guzmán reads the story of Jesus’ Passion while Mary grieves

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II–II, q. 141, a. 2, ad 3. Cf. “Whether the Honest Is the Same as the Beautiful?” ST II–II, q. 145, a. 2.
  2. Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, trans. R. & C. Winston (New York: Pantheon, 1958), 81.
  3. Pieper, 75.
  4. Ibid, 87.
  5. ST II–II, q. 85, a. 2.
Contributed By Sr. Dominic Mary Heath

Sr. Dominic Mary Heath is a novice with the cloistered Dominican nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in North Guilford, CT. Before entering religious life she studied systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame and the Augustine Institute, Denver.

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