Love of Learning, Love of God and Neighbor

"You’re still going to take classes?"
"But . . . didn’t you graduate?"
"Okay, so . . . why are you still going to take classes?"
"Because I still have a lot to learn."

If I had a dollar for the number of times I've had this conversation with friends or family over the past several months, I'd have many dollars. To be fair, they're not wrong to ask. I’ve been in school for a long time. With the exception of taking one year off between degrees, I’ve been in school or taking classes in varying degrees of intensity for almost thirty years now, and people wonder when/if I'll ever be done. Truthfully, I think the answer is probably never/no. But my status as a perma-student isn't the result of a prolonged existential crisis—I didn’t change my major multiple times (or even once) or spend years spinning my wheels trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky. The next step just always seemed to present itself, and always happened to be working toward another degree. The focus shifted somewhat—I went from studying piano performance to music theory and composition to sacred music to theology—but there was a constant thread running through all of my studies that has only become apparent in recent years.

Turns out, I kept studying—I keep studying—because that’s one of the ways in which God is drawing me into relationship with him. I study, write, and perform music because its beauty expands my heart and creates room for divine beauty to enter in and make me more beautiful by its coming, and because music in turn enables me to voice my praises and laments in ways words alone cannot. I study, write, and perform theology (for indeed the liturgy is theology in performance) because my faith is constantly seeking greater understanding. I know enough to know that I’ll never know everything—the divine mysteries are ultimately unfathomable, but I yearn to plumb them to their depths anyway. I meet my God in my studies of music and theology, and, far more astoundingly, my God comes to meet me, and draws me “further up and further in” to a relationship of divine love through everything that I learn.

God gifted me with my overactive imagination, my intellectual capacity, my ear for music, my memory, precisely so that we could be in relationship with one another. It’s up to me to develop these gifts as best I can through continual prayer and yes, perennial study, so that they might continue to be a conduit for me in developing my relationship with God. Moreover, God has called me to be in relationship with those around me through these gifts—has given me a mission to serve others through them.

The connection between my love of learning—particularly considering my fields of study—and my love of God and neighbor seems an obvious, easy, even cliché one to draw. But what of people who don’t study music or theology? What about the engineers, the physicists, the accountants? How is their love of learning to be caught up in love of God and neighbor?

In her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Simone Weil provides us with an answer. In study, we cultivate our capacity for attention, and for Weil, “Prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”[1]

Of the relationship between study and prayer, Weil writes:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes [try telling that to a first-year Notre Dame student]; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks [even and perhaps especially the required courses that seem pointless], with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express.[2]

One ought to study not merely to pass the class, to get the degree, to get the job, to get the paycheck; one ought to study so that the truths learned in the classroom lead to knowledge of the One who is Truth. And this is possible regardless of the field of study. Again, turning to Weil:
Being a little fragment of particular truth, [academic knowledge] is a pure image of the unique, eternal, and living Truth, the very Truth that once in a human voice declared: “I am the Truth.” Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.[3]

Academic study, undertaken with a view to cultivating one’s attentiveness and openness to God and neighbor, can indeed become a sacramental endeavor, for in cultivating attentiveness, we are in fact cultivating our capacity to love. This is why attentiveness and prayer are the same thing for Weil, because love and attentiveness are the same thing, and love and prayer are the same thing. Attentiveness become love allows us not only to contemplate the mysteries of God in prayer, but also to look at our suffering neighbor and ask, “What are you going through?”[4] so that we might be able to serve God in her. Attentiveness in academic study teaches us to focus on that which is not our selves, be it a Beethoven sonata, Augustine’s sermons, the theory of relativity, the human circulatory system, or Constitutional law. And when we turn our gaze away from the self and toward the other, “the soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself” the truth of what it is looking at.[5] Receiving truth in academic study paves the way for receiving him who is Truth, for receiving those in whose faces Truth shines forth. In other words, the genuine love of learning nurtured in attentive academic study is the gateway to love of God and love of neighbor.

Featured Photo: courtesy of the author and the author's desk.

[1] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God, tr. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 57.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 62–63.

[4] Ibid., 64.

[5] Ibid., 65.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

Read more by Carolyn Pirtle