The Love of Learning and the Lay Desire for God

What lessons does the monastic approach to learning classical texts bear on our contemporary debates in education? Speaking to the College of Bernardins in Paris, Pope Benedict XVI used a beautiful image about the importance of monks singing well together to make an analogy about how we can learn to seek God together in education. Beautiful music is supposed to generate resonance—a feeling that stays with us; perhaps a gentle, uplifting feeling that gently calls our attention towards the sublime. But the opposite of resonance is dissonance, not being able to put together all the pieces of what you are hearing.

I had students in a seminar on education read Pope Benedict’s piece because dissonance in education today is rampant. Students rarely are exposed to classes that teach them how to integrate knowledge from various fields. Students accumulate tons of information, but they have no way to put together all the pieces of what they learn. They are also taught that the only truth is relativism about truth. Rather than education being a journey that forms us integrally as humans, education becomes a chore that (even if we succeed at it) fragments us.

My own studying of medieval monastic approach to learning has not led me to flee to the hills in a segmented community, but to develop an approach to education that has provided my students with precisely the kinds of resonance that learning is supposed to provide—an integration of knowledge that helps integrate one’s own very being in the world.

Pope Benedict described the monastic approach to learning as Quaerere Deum—setting out in search of God both through revelation and through nature. He called this a “truly philosophical attitude: looking beyond the penultimate, and setting out in search of the ultimate and the true.”

To know God is not only to know Scripture; to know God is also to know his action in the world as revealed in the history and world of human beings. God not only created the world, but continues to work in the world. As such, our work in the world can be seen as “a special form of resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God’s activity as creator of the world.”

Because the monks believed that God was at work in whatever was beautiful, in his book The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Jean Leclercq describes how monks studied not only Church Fathers and Scripture, but classical texts simply because they were beautiful. Monks believed that, in some real way, everything that is good or beautiful comes from the hand of God, even if the author was not a Christian.

According to Leclercq, monks were optimistic in thinking that “everything true or good or simply beautiful that was said, even by pagans, belongs to the Christians” (116). Quite unlike today’s efforts to deconstruct and debunk classical texts for their flaws, monks made every effort to find a good intention in these works.

Monks studied scripture with great appreciation for God’s word, but they also studied non-Christian works that were beautiful and good simply to develop their appreciation for the beautiful, wherever it was. As Leclercq describes, the monks sought to:

Develop in all a power of enthusiasm and the capacity for admiration . . . Wisdom was sought in the pages of pagan literature and the searcher discovered it because he already possessed it; the texts gave it an added luster. The pagan authors continued to live in their readers, to nurture their desire for wisdom and moral aspirations (118-119).

The Monks appreciated the beauty of classical texts, and not merely because they were Christian or even moral instruction. As Leclercq explains,

At times they drew moral lessons from these authors, but they were not, thanks be to God, reduced to looking to them for that. Their desire was for the joys of the spirit, and they neglected none that these authors had to offer. So if they transcribed classical texts it is simply because they loved them (134).

Leclercq describes this approach to learning as integral humanism, a humanism that integrates classical humanism with the eschatological humanism of Christianity: that Christ became man to save us from our sins. Integral humanism seeks beauty in both the horizontal and the vertical—the world we can see and study and the world we do not see directly, yet perceive through the beauty of the world that is a sign of another type of existence.

Integral humanism is not anthropocentricism. Integral humanism can connect the worldly and the supernatural, awakening desires for truth and deep appreciation for beauty. Integral humanism celebrates nature and man’s creation, but also acknowledges its limits and dependence on the creator, and awakens our desire for the infinite.

Discussions about liberal arts cannot just be about which texts to include in a core curriculum. Christians in particular bring a unique perspective to liberal arts education not just because of the emphasis the Christian intellectual tradition places on philosophy or theology, but, more importantly, because Christians believe that all that is good, beautiful, and true comes from the hand of God.

European culture, according to Pope Benedict XVI in Quaerere Deum, grew out of this monastic approach to knowledge that revered the word of God and all of creation. He wrote that, “what gave Europe’s culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to him—remains today the basis of any genuine culture” (emphasis mine).

But Pope Benedict XVI goes on to argue that today, we live in a culture that has made our deepest desire—to know God—a subjective, individualized search, cut off from how we use our reason about the world. Anthropocentric humanism celebrates the human capacity to know the world but separates that capacity from how we know God. Instead of elevating our humanity, anthropocentric humanism fragments knowledge and our very being as humans into disjointed pieces.

Instead of a university in which we know all fields relate to each other and that all truth glorifies God, we have a multiversity, which might succeed in producing some good things but fails to produce resonance in students, that is, a lasting impressing that our knowledge gained is part of our quest for truth.

Most modern universities where I have worked fail to generate a sense of appreciation for any traditions of knowledge and instead promote the deconstruction of past knowledge. The curriculum may be full of laudable skills to be acquired on the way to achieving learning goals in a particular class. Yet, the idea that mastering a subject should be a transformation that awakens our desires for the good and beautiful sounds, at best, sentimental, therefore unrelated to reason, or, at worst, a romantic dream that is the privilege who those who do not need a job when they graduate.

Perhaps I am lucky to have come from a home that instilled such high aspirations in me—not just about credentials and grades, but about the love of learning. For as long as I can remember, I loved learning. My father—who studied math in college and wooed my mother by tutoring her in math—taught me when I was five about mathematical theories as a sign of his love for me.

I can recall how, as a young child not even old enough for school, I used to sit next to my father studying math or geography. I felt like the world continents as well as the world of abstract reasoning about numbers was exciting. My father was teaching me something about my place in this world, instilling in me a deep curiosity about how this all came to be so. I, in turn, always greatly admired my father’s broad intellect and intrinsic love of knowing and teaching me many, many things—both material and abstract. I have long desired that exhilarating feeling that echoes with our deepest aspirations as humans when I master a topic. I rejoice when I can pass on to a student not only mastery of a topic, but the very love of learning itself.

In an educational system so dominated by credentials and skills, we are at risk of never awakening in students their desire for the truth and killing their love of learning. It is precisely through awakening desires to know the truth that our ever-more complex educational system can function like a big orchestra—all coming together to produce beautiful harmony. Instead, many students will go through the multiversity not sure which of the many loudspeakers competing for their attention they should devote their energy to. Students tell me again and again that when they get to college, even if they may be gathering up knowledge and winning accolades, their inner soul is experiencing dissonance.

I agree with the critiques others have made about higher education, but I think the biggest challenge in higher education is not that students are hyper-competitive, stressed out, and emotionally fragile—it is that students are not getting a real education. I do not just mean they are not being exposed to the classics traditionally taught in humanities classes; I mean they are not being taught to love the search for truth that all education must aspire to.

I think it is unlikely that majors in humanities are going to grow in their numbers to even their previous levels. The pull is too strong to major in STEM fields or some other field that will make money to pay off crushing debt and a rising cost of living. But integral humanism in education, or, more generally, a classical liberal arts education, could also mean that students majoring in any field could go on trips to the art museum together; or, go to a monastery for a day, or even longer. These are a couple of the many ways to awaken their full humanity in its search for the truth in every situation.

For example, in the summer seminar I taught for the last two summers entitled “Rediscovering Integral Humanism,” both shared experiences of beauty, alongside long sessions poring over texts, were important part of our time together. We spent several days at Oxford reading authors like John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, and George Marsden. In our free time, we went to Evensong at Magdalene College, or went for walks in nature. During our eight days at Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near York, we not only continued our intense pace of study, we also walked to see the sheep and pigs at the monastery, played games together outdoors, ate meals family-style around a big table, and sang the liturgy of the hours with the monks, or just sang with each other spontaneously.

Studying and living together at a monastery for eight days made the monastic approach to education come alive. It is not just that the animals and fields are beautiful, it is that the beauty inspires creativity and deep thinking. Open landscapes helps us open our mind. Stunning sunsets over the lake excite the senses, call our attention both outward and inward at the same time, preparing us to think deeply and slowly in our reading sessions.

As one student remarked in her evaluation,

The setting of the seminar, particularly in Ampleforth, made it very natural to stay in a contemplative mindset. And living and eating together made it feel like we were a family, with all the relational depth and play that goes along with that kind of dynamic. The readings/discussions exposed me to many different viewpoints and disciplinary approaches, while also giving me a much deeper understanding of my own area of study; I was able to view it—and was forced to articulate it—from the perspectives that others brought to the discussion.

This particular student was from a family of eight children, had attended Princeton University on a full financial need scholarship, achieved great accolades in the classroom and service, and had been active in a Christian ministry. But the seminar we shared together was unique because it allowed her to enter into a contemplative mindset, to get to know others' perspectives and personalities, as one does with siblings, and to be challenged by each other’s ideas in the seminar discussions.

But I was perhaps even more struck by her expression of how the seminar resonated with her humanity, leaving an impression that she is known and loved; with a feeling that that our time together was permeated by something bigger than all of us (the love of God) that holds us together. As she wrote:

My most lasting impression from the seminar will be the infusion of God’s love in all of our time together. I felt whole, like I was known and loved. The lingering taste of these deep and beautiful friendships will, I hope, lead me onto communities that will foster my growth in wisdom and self-giving wherever I’m called to next.

Beyond the material we mastered—which was quite a lot—the experience resonated with her deepest longings to search for truth with others, and the delights of the mind were shared alongside experiences of beauty.

The most profound memory I will take back with me from our time together at Ampleforth was walking in silence as a group for about an hour from the monastery to the lake to see the sunset together on the last evening. I noticed how everyone’s walking style was slightly different. Some were slow while others practically ran. Some looked like they were skipping, whereas others swayed side to side.

When we arrived at the lake, we stood in a big group by the lake and made a circle, hugging each other as I offered my final reflection on our twelve days together. I remarked that our distinct walking styles headed in the same direction reminded me that each of us came here on a journey, and our journey was personal, yet we are accompanying each other on our journey. We are in fact, self-interpreting animals who seek the company of other self-interpreting animals. As a Christian, I believe that humans are part of nature, we build many things including culture and, yes we have the image of the divine in us that can be communicated to others in love.

The beauty of that final moment together in nature solidified for all of us our memories of what an amazing experience we had together. I told the students that in times of worry and doubt—times that I know will come as I am a weak human—I will remember our lively seminar discussions, our singing, our walks in nature, our many shared meals, our intensely personal conversations, and find my faith, hope, and love renewed in remembering you.

The seminar was an experience of our total humanity in a world that feels so fragmented. My final words to the group were to go forth in love to a world that feels polarized, divided, angry, and confused. The love of God we felt pouring out during our search for truth together is something we need to communicate to others—not just to our friends who think us like, but also to those who do not understand us, and those who do not want to understand us. A monastic approach to education does not have to mean creating communities apart from the world, but can also mean witnessing by our approach to learning a greater truth—that, despite our often grave differences, we are all on a journey together, united as creatures of one God that we all seek, perhaps by different names that point to one reality.

The monastic approach to education—Quaerere Deum—fits well with our seeker generation whose lives are filled with dissonance in their education and their personal lives. Many of today’s young people—regardless of their faith background or where they are on their faith journey—desire to live a theological aesthetic in their everyday lives, which have been stripped of the sacred.

Seeking God in all things—revelation and nature, seeing God active in faith and in reason—is a bulwark against the dominant language of science that is empiricist—the only thing that is real is material. Such an approach to the world reduces all of created reality to something to be manipulate. Quaerere Deum is a bulwark against educational practice that lead to endless deconstruction of truth—there is goodness and beauty in the world, there is truth we can discover and share with others. The critical approach cannot lead us anywhere without the appreciation of the beautiful and the good.

But a response to our crisis in education through learning once again to seek God in all things is not a formula, nor a curriculum, but a journey, one that takes its time, that goes deep, and in so doing, slowly transforms the world around it, even a world that may seem hostile to it. Like a great piece of music, Quaerere Deum, an approach to education that is both deeply satisfying yet also leaves us longing for more: the infinite.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Is this kind of profound learning something you might want to try out at the University of Notre Dame? If so, learn more about the ND McGrath Institute's Liturgy Week 2020.  

Featured Image: Diego Velazquez, Peasant Lunch, 1620; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Margarita Mooney

Margarita Mooney is an Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author of Faith Makes Us Live Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. She also started the Scala Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to reinvigorating classical liberal arts education.  

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