Prayer and Fortitude in Learning
~ by Gabe Quinodoz ~
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). When it comes to education, both learning and teaching, we often think in terms of study routines, lesson plans, skimming techniques, interesting classroom activities, and socratic discussion, among other things. And yet, while all of these aspects of teaching and learning are incredibly important, even essential, how often do we neglect, or at least pay less heed to their most important support? What place do prayer and fortitude have in education?
In Josef Pieper: An Anthology, Pieper speaks of a “superficial ‘discourse’ of everyday life… trying as it does to deny the reality of the fearful” (pg. 69). On the flip side, he describes “a new stoicism. It is proclaimed, especially by a circle of men that remember both world wars… that human existence everywhere induces fear, but nothing is so fearful that the strong cannot bear and endure it with dignity” (69). Pieper concludes that “almost all the dreams of these ‘heroic hearts’ are nightmares” (70). But why? And what does fear have to do with education? Pieper continues, speaking of “the true metaphysical situation of the Western World… a Christian attitude that is complacently wrapped in the rather superficial security of ‘cultural’ achievements and has not yet plumbed its own depths. These depths conceal the ultimate Christian answer for the matter at hand: the notion of fear of the Lord” (70). While we may have the “achievements” of good grades, Ivy-League college acceptance, impeccable lesson plans, astute socratic leadership and participation, and so on, all of these things will crumble and fail if the Lord does not build and guard the house of our education. How can we ensure that He will do this? For our answer, let us turn to the Church Fathers.
Evagrios the Solitary, in volume one of the Philokalia, tells us that “we practice the virtues in order to achieve contemplation of the inner essences (logoi) of created things, and from this we pass to contemplation of the Logos who gives them their being; and He manifests Himself when we are in the state of prayer. (Philokalia vol.1, 61-62). In other words, we must purify our souls if we are to be given insight into the contemplation of inner essences—and through them, of God—and we must be “in a state of prayer” to meet Him. It requires perseverance, ascetic self-denial and fortitude to recognize and face the gravity of this calling. Our task is not easy. Indeed, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Further, we are called to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Such injunctions indubitably call us to ceaseless prayer and meditation on God. So, is this call suspended when we enter the classroom? Far from it! God has set our teaching and our education before us, therefore, mustn’t these too be brought into captivity to the obedience of Him?
We have learnt, after much observation, to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from the demons. Angelic thought is concerned with the true nature of things and with searching out their spiritual essences. For example, why was gold created and scattered like sand in the lower regions of the earth, to be found only with much toil and effort? And how, when found, is it washed in water and committed to the fire, and then put into the hands of craftsmen who fashion it into the candlestick of the tabernacle and the censers and the vessels (cf. Exod. 25:22-39) from which, by the grace of our Savior, the king of Babylon no longer drinks (cf. Dan. 5:2, 3)? A man such as Cleopas brings a heart burning with these mysteries (cf. Luke 24:22). Demonic thought, on the other hand, neither knows nor can know such things. It can only shamelessly suggest the acquisition of physical gold, looking forward to the wealth and glory that will come from this. Finally, human thought neither seeks to acquire nor is concerned to know what it symbolizes, but brings before the mind the simple image of gold, without passion or greed. The same principle applies to other things as well” (Philokalia, vol. 1, pg. 42-43).
Of these three kinds of thoughts, let us steer ourselves and our students towards angelic thoughts, not settling for merely human thoughts, and by no means stooping to an education fueled by selfish, demonic thought. Let us remember true mastery of material means understanding how all things point and direct us towards God, keeping very seriously St. Basil the Great’s words from his address To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature:
So we must consider that a contest, the greatest of all contests, lies before us, for which we must do all things, and, in preparation for it, must strive to the best of our power, and must associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul.
To see our education as such a battle requires self-denial and fortitude, as does leaving behind the vision and ease of education as but a means to earthly success. This vision will give us the Fear of the Lord, which will push us to prioritize prayer in our education, and to keep St. Paul’s call to ceaseless prayer very seriously. Thus, my humble advice to teachers and students is this: Pray for yourself, your teachers, students and peers morning and evening. Say a prayer rope for them before every class. If you don’t have or aren’t familiar with a prayer rope, this simply means thirty three invocations of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us,” one for every year Christ was on Earth. Remember that in all things, we are to commend ourselves and one another, and all of our lives unto Christ our God. You will be astounded by the help God brings to your classes and studies.
Let us make but a small and yet courageous beginning in the efforts of prayer in education, that God may see our striving and answer, building the house of our soul and guarding the city of our education as we teach and as we learn, being faithful in what little God has set before us, that He may set us over much.
Gabe Quinodoz graduated from Eastern University in December of 2019 with a B.A. in History. After graduation he worked as an Assistant Teacher at Main Line Classical Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA. He is currently a student in the Masters of Arts in Teaching in Classical Education at Eastern University, and is very excited to put the wonderful knowledge and skills he is learning to use in teaching the students of Scholé Academy. Gabe is also currently teaching a section of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) for the Classical Learning Resource Center (CLRC) online. As a teacher at St. Philip’s Orthodox Church Sunday School, and at their Summer Camp, and having been an R.A. & T.A for the high school students in the Summer Scholars program at Eastern University, Gabe loves and is experienced with teaching students of all ages. He is very thankful to be a part of Scholé Academy. Gabe enjoys going to church, spending time with his friends and siblings, walking, hiking, reading good stories and also trying to write them.