Learning to Pray before Study

April 23, 2019

Social science supports the efficacy of prayer in a wide variety of settings. For instance, prayer is positively associated with physical health and emotional well-being. Those who pray are less likely to participate in unhealthy behavior. Prayer has been positively linked to life meaning, and the value of sacrifice in important relationships, including friendships and marriage. And, for students and others engaged in difficult cognitive work, payer is associated with diminishing negative emotions, which frees up mental resources to complete difficult thought-related tasks.

The Christian Scripture seems more eager to model prayer than to offer instruction about it. Prayer is practice, not just theory. Conversation, trust, devotion, relationship, intimacy, and friendship are images that set prayer within a broad relational framework.

Jesus’s prayer life is particularly illuminating. To renew his strength, he prioritizes time and space to be in the presence of his Father. He withdraws to quiet places, asks for help during times of need, praises God for his holiness and grandeur, and petitions his Father for the wholeness and well-being of others.

When teaching to the crowds who followed him, Jesus offered a blueprint for prayer, memorialized as “The Lord’s Prayer.” To this day this example reverberates in private and public consciousness.

     Our Father in heaven,

     hallowed be your name,

     your kingdom come,

     your will be done,

         on earth as it is in heaven.

     Give us today our daily bread.

     And forgive us our debts,

         as we also have forgiven our debtors.

     And lead us not into temptation,

     but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt. 6:9-13)

In his classic book, Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home, Quaker theologian Richard Foster orients prayer along three axes: praying inwardly, seeking the transformation we need; praying upwardly, seeking the intimacy we need; and praying outwardly, seeking the ministry we need.

Author Anne Lamott is more direct. To her, prayer takes three forms: “Help. Thanks. Wow.”

Approaching God with our need is a part of what it means to be dependent creatures. Jesus himself teaches us to ask, seek, and knock. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:7-8).

One of my greatest memories of God’s faithfulness and power is associated with my doctoral exams. With mounting stress from months of test preparation, my sleep patterns were severely disturbed in the days preceding my examination, creating an unwelcome cycle of fatigue and anxiety. With a sleep aid and countless prayers offered on my behalf, I awoke the morning of my exams more refreshed than I had been for months. There was no logical explanation for my renewed condition other than the fidelity of God and the efficacy of prayer.

As you approach your final exams and papers, consider following Jesus’s pattern of Help. Thanks. Wow. Likely, you will feel healthier and relate to others more authentically. Your performance may even improve. A practical next step is to follow the example of Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century saint who wrote a specific prayer to settle our minds and hearts before study. Consider his words and feel the freedom to translate them into your heart language. May his petition be your prayer during these days of heavy academic demand.

Ante Studium (Prayer Before Study)
By St. Thomas Aquinas

Ineffable Creator,

     Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,

          has established three hierarchies of angels,

          has arrayed them in marvelous order

               above the fiery heavens,

          and has marshaled the regions

               of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed

     the true font of light and wisdom,

     and the primal origin

          raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness

     into the darkened places of my mind;

     disperse from my soul

          the twofold darkness

               into which I was born:

                    sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.

     Refine my speech

     and pour forth upon my lips

         the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me

     keenness of mind,

     capacity to remember,

     skill in learning,

     subtlety to interpret,

     and eloquence in speech.

May You

     guide the beginning of my work,

     direct its progress,

     and bring it to completion.

You Who are true God and true Man,

     Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.


This article is by Upper House’s Executive Director, John Terrill.