What If Education Serves Primarily to Teach Us How to Pray?

Erasmus by Holbein the Younger
1523 portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) by Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

It’s one of my favorite teaching weeks of the year at Bethel University: Renaissance week in GES130 Christianity and Western Culture, the multidisciplinary course that’s at the foundation of most Bethel students’ general education experience. It’s not so much that I enjoy the Renaissance itself (I think we once devoted a whole segment of our CWC podcast to dissecting my dislike of the Renaissance), but that we get to introduce our students to the man that I’ve previously called “the Christian scholar’s scholar”: Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus, I wrote for his birthday last year, “seems to best exemplify the unique blend of faithful piety and thoughtful curiosity — at once zealous and humble, clever and simple — that ought to characterize those seeking to love God with their heart, soul, and mind.” I lauded his commitment to education and admired his ability to move across disciplines and audiences with ease. And while our students also read brief excerpts from his Freedom of the Will and Education of a Christian Prince, it’s his 1501 Handbook (or Weapon) of a Christian Warrior that I particularly recommend to their attention, since it makes such a strong case for the kind of education that a Christian liberal arts college can offer: committed to equipping women and men to love and serve Jesus Christ through study of both Christian and secular sources of knowledge.

Before he lectured yesterday on the Renaissance, my colleague Mike Holmes (who shares with Erasmus the achievement of having published a new Greek edition of the New Testament) read a paragraph from Erasmus’ Handbook for devotions. Having warned his reader that “our life on earth is a constant [spiritual] war,” that “We must stand before our tents and keep watch, for the enemy is never idle,” Erasmus turned to describing the chief “weapons” available to us:

Anyone who wants to fight against the army of vices must be armed with two weapons in particular. These weapons are prayer and knowledge. Paul wants us to be armed at all times when he tells us to pray continually [1 Thess 5:17]. Pure and perfect prayer lifts us up to heaven, and builds a tower beyond the enemy’s reach. Learning, or knowledge arms the mind with sound ideas and honest opinions. The two depend on each other, and stick together like best friends, each needing the help of the other. The one intercedes while the other shows us what to pray for.   Learning and sound doctrine teach you how to pray in the name of Jesus; to desire what is good for your soul. Didn’t Christ say to the sons of Zebedee, “You don’t know what you are asking” [Mk 10:38]? Sound teaching is necessary so that you can talk to God on familiar terms, the best kind of prayer. (paraphrased by Neil Lettinga from a 1533 English translation)

So many of us expend so much energy trying to justify the value of a liberal arts education. Can there be anything more valuable than “to desire what is good for your soul”?

But something else in that paragraph came to mind listening to Mike, a notion that I had suggested at the end of my Erasmus post last October and then forgotten to think about for the rest of 2013 and most of 2014:

I wonder how we might rethink the entire project of Christian scholarship and higher education if we were to take seriously the idea that we aren’t seeking knowledge for its own sake, but to teach people how to pray….

What if education primarily served to teach us how to pray? What if it helped awaken people who “snore quietly and give our selves to idle pleasure, as though our lives were a party and not a war” to the need for prayer and trained us for true piety, “not the flapping of your lips that matters, but the fervent desires of your heart beating on the ear of God”?

I want to continue to reflect on this notion, but today let me briefly bring in one more member of our “great cloud of witnesses” whose teachings on prayer might help us understand what Erasmus is hinting at:

Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) – Wikimedia

…what do we mean by prayer? Surely just this: that part of our conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. God is that spiritual reality, and we believe God to be immanent in all things: “He is not far from each one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:27b-28].

So wrote the great 20th century mystic Evelyn Underhill, in The Essentials of Mysticism. But while someone who describes prayer as “[stretching] out the tentacles of our consciousness” towards God might not sound especially relevant to any reflection on the nature of higher education, Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith point out that “Underhill’s personal spiritual journey intersected with her intellectual capability, producing the much needed combination of authentic spirituality and academic integrity.” (In addition to her work as a spiritual writer and spiritual director, Underhill spent two years lecturing at Oxford.)

So what has prayer to do with education?

Prayer, as a rule, should begin with something we usually call an intellectual act, with thinking of what we are going to do. All the great writers on prayer take it as a matter of course that “meditation” comes before “oration” (or spoken prayer). Meditation is simply the art of thinking steadily and methodically about spiritual things.

Education as an extended act of meditation that precedes prayer? I’m not sure we’re going to put this in our admissions brochures as the Bethel version of demonstrating educational “return on investment,” but bear with Underhill:

Dürer drawing of hands folded in prayer
Drawing of hands in prayer by Albrecht Dürer – Wikimedia

There are some who believe that when we turn to God we ought to leave our brains behind us. True, they will soon be left behind by necessity if we go far on the road towards God who is above all reason and all knowledge, for the Spirit swiftly overpasses these imperfect instruments. But those whose feet are still firmly planted upon earth gain nothing by anticipating this moment when reason is left behind; they will not attain the depths of prayer by the mere annihilation of their intelligence.

Now, she goes on to advise readers that “an active and disciplined intelligence” also requires “humility and love,” and warns that “we cannot think our way along the royal road which leads to heaven” absent training of our “feeling” and “willing or acting” faculties.

But if Underhill is right that “It is the whole person of intellect, of feeling, and of will which finds its only true objective in the Christian God,” then a college that claims to “form whole and holy persons” might also be a college that can conceive its mission, at least in part, as offering the “sound teaching” that lets its students “talk to God on familiar terms, the best kind of prayer.”

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