The Saints and Academic Difficulties

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you.

Psalm 32:8

Imagine, if you can, that one of the greatest professional athletes of our times absolutely hated to play sports as a boy, and was clumsy and uncoordinated.  This hypothetical situations could well have happened (and, if so, they’d illustrate the importance of perseverance and the resiliency of the human character). They’re mentioned here to introduce someone who did have this sort of remarkable and unexpected turnaround in life: the seventh-century Spanish bishop St. Isidore of Seville.

Isidore, who was named a Doctor of the Church almost 1,100 years after his death, was one of the great scholars of his age. As archbishop of Toledo, he decreed that a seminary or cathedral school be established in every diocese of Spain, and as the most learned man of the country, he drew up a very impressive and wide-ranging curriculum for the education of students. Isidore even compiled his own encyclopedia, called the Etymologies (or Origins), which gathered into a unified form all the knowledge of his age.

Impressive achievements, to be sure — but how do they fit into a discussion on difficulties in gaining an education? For the simple reason that, as a student, Isidore hated learning and studying.

St. Isidore came from a very holy family; his sister and two of his brothers were eventually canonized. One of these brothers, St. Leander, was much older than Isidore and was placed in charge of his education. Leander was very intelligent and well educated, and this may have influenced his high expectations for his younger brother — for Leander was a very demanding schoolmaster. In fact, he was so strict that one day Isidore ran away. The youth took refuge in the woods, and, while resting, noticed a stone that was being worn down by water, one drop at a time. Isidore pondered this, and then the “lesson” hit home: if he approached his studies in the same manner, he would succeed; it wasn’t necessary for him to learn or understand everything all at once, but merely to pro­ceed with persistence, step by step, learning a little bit at a time, until mastery of the subject finally came about. Isidore returned to his studies, and, with his new attitude and sense of determination, succeeded far beyond what he could have imagined.

This isn’t to say that every student can become a great scholar, but it’s true that God wants us to do our best in our efforts to learn, and as long as we make the effort, He will gladly assist us. As St. Isidore himself later stated, “One who is slow to grasp things but who really tries hard is rewarded; equally he who does not culti­vate his God-given intellectual ability is condemned for despising his gifts and sinning by sloth.” In other words, the Lord looks not at our level of success in academics (or in any other field), but at how hard we’ve tried.

As one would expect, many of the saints are to be numbered among the greatest thinkers and scholars of history, and quite a few of them did much to advance the methods and availability of education for others. Such saints include St. Angela Merici, who was ahead of her time, early in the sixteenth century, in creating a teaching order of religious women (the Ursuline Sisters); St. John Bosco, the nineteenth-century Italian priest who upset professional educators by successfully teaching and guiding delinquent boys using a mixture of gentleness, firmness, and practicality, combined with an effort to make learning enjoy­able.

Other noted educators in the Church’s history include St. Lawrence of Brindisi, a great Scripture scholar whose fluency in ancient languages made it possible for him to study the Bible in the original texts; St. John Baptist de La Salle, the French priest who — like St. John Bosco two hundred years later — devoted himself to the education of poor, underprivileged boys (even though this work was at first distasteful to him).

Impressive as this list is, however, it should not obscure an im­portant fact: not all the saints enjoyed school or had an easy time learning. St. Augustine, for instance — although a brilliant stu­dent — hated having to attend classes. (Ironically, during his long search for the truth, he became a popular and successful teacher himself.) Some saints had to struggle with their studies. This was the case with the famous patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney. The future Curé d’Ars, as he was later known, greatly de­sired to become a priest, but his academic difficulties seemed des­tined to prevent this. Only the assistance of a tutor, and much diligence and prayer on his part, overcame this obstacle — and even then, he was ordained more because of his devoutness and growing holiness than for any other apparent qualifications.

A young girl named Bernadette, to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared within a year of St. John Vianney’s death, was consid­ered a very slow student and, although fourteen, hadn’t yet made her First Communion. Indeed, it was Bernadette’s unintelligent disposition that lent authenticity to her claim to have seen Mary; when she told her parish’s pastor that the Lady in question had referred to herself as “the Immaculate Conception,” the priest realized it would have been impossible for Bernadette to have imagined or made up such a term.

All the saints found prayer to be very important in achiev­ing academic success — but there’s at least one instance of a saint almost praying too much during his studies. As a Dominican nov­ice, St. Louis Bertrand greatly enjoyed the year-long period of prayer and contemplation. Following his solemn profession, how­ever, a much greater emphasis was placed on academics. Louis found the new routine tedious, and greatly desired to set aside his studies for increased prayer — until he realized this was a subtle temptation from the Devil to dissuade him from his ultimate goal. Chastened by this insight, Louis applied himself with renewed dedication, and successfully completed the order’s required course of study.

From Fr. Esper’s More Saintly Solutions. Click here to order.

The Church has always valued education, but has also recog­nized that many times what the Lord has hidden from the learned and clever, He has revealed to the merest children. Bl. Jordan of Saxony, the successor of St. Dominic as master general of the Do­minican Order, was once informed that some of the novices were so unintelligent that they could barely be taught to read. Jordan responded, “Let them be. Despise not one of these little ones: I tell you that many among them will become excellent preachers” — and so it happened.

Education was a source of humiliation for several of the saints. As a youth, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas was called by his fellow students “the Dumb Ox,” for his usual silence in the classroom kept them from realizing what a brilliant intellect he possessed. Both St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and a later Jesuit, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, got a late start on their academic careers — which meant that, although grown men, they had to attend grammar school and learn Latin with boys half their age before being ordained.

However, humility is not out of place when it comes to learn­ing, for no matter how much we learn, our knowledge is slight compared with that of the angels, and as of nothing compared with an all-knowing God. Moreover, our legitimate efforts to study and learn must be kept in proper perspective. A great scholar and Doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure, once remarked that a poor, uneducated person might very well know and love God more than a theologian or Church leader, and St. Vincent de Paul noted, “It is on humble souls that God pours down His fullest light and grace. He teaches them what scholars cannot learn, and mys­teries that the wisest cannot solve He can make plain to them.”

A good education can make life easier and more satisfying (al­though there’s no guarantee of this), but it’s certainly not a re­quirement for holiness. As St. Pius X pointed out, “To praise God well, it is not necessary to be learned.” Education is but a means to an end — that of knowing and loving God with all our hearts — and our struggles to learn and understand should fit into this process. In a letter to his younger brother, the nineteenth-century priest and martyr St. Théophane Vénard wrote, “You will be glad one day of these days that you learned your lessons. They will fit you better to do what God wants you to do, so as to win Heaven at the end of it all. For that alone must be the object of all we do. Work hard, work steadily, not for praise or honor or prizes, but sim­ply to please God.”

If we are seeking academic success primarily for our own glory, it doesn’t matter how successful we might be; all our achievements will end up leaving us unsatisfied. If, however, we’re trying to learn and develop our minds primarily for God’s glory, it doesn’t matter whether we succeed; His presence will bless us. The Lord wants us to do our best, and He promises that, if we seek to please Him, He will smile upon our efforts.

For Further Reflection

“The man who is slow to grasp things but who really tries hard is rewarded; equally he who does not cultivate his God-given in­tellectual ability is condemned for despising his gifts and sin­ning by sloth.” — St. Isidore of Seville

“Do not plunge straight into the sea [of learning], but rather enter it by way of little streams, because it is wise to work upward from the easier to the more difficult. . . . See that you thor­oughly grasp whatever you read and hear. Check up on doubt­ful points. And do your best to hoard up whatever you can in that little bookcase of your mind; you want to fill it as full as possible.” — St. Thomas Aquinas

“After hearing that they should be humble, some persons do not wish to learn anything. They think they will be proud if they have anything. It has been made clear to us where God wishes us to be in the depths and where He wishes us to be in the heights. He wishes us to be humble to avoid pride, and He wishes us to be on high to grasp wisdom.” — St. Augustine

Something You Might Try

  • Three of the Church’s greatest scholars, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure, all stated that they gained more learning by prayer than by study. (Indeed, one of St. Thomas’s contemporaries wrote, “Thomas did not acquire his knowledge by natural ingenuity, but rather through the revelation and infusion of the Holy Spirit, for he never began to write with­out previous prayer and tears. Whenever a doubt arose, he had re­course to prayer. After shedding many tears, he would return to his work, now enlightened and instructed.”) Thus, it’s important to begin all our academic efforts (studying for a test, reading an as­signment, writing a paper, taking a quiz, and so forth) with a silent prayer. Not only can this help relax us (enabling us to do our best), but — more important — it’s a way of calling down God’s blessing upon our efforts. According to Pope St. Pius V, “The most power­ful aid we can bring to [our] study is the practice of earnest prayer. The more closely the mind is united to God, the richer will be the stores of light that follow its researches.” Prayer is no substitute for studying (for God helps those who help themselves), but it can definitely help us improve our results, for God wants us to succeed when we seek to do our best for His glory.
  • According to St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Learning will always be necessary, or certainly useful, and not only that which is infused [revealed to us by the Holy Spirit], but that also which is acquired by study. . . . Try to keep your soul always in peace and quiet, al­ways ready for whatever our Lord may wish to work in you.” Thus, we should undertake our studies in a spirit of trust, doing our best to avoid all anxiety.

Editor’s note: This article is from Fr. Esper’s More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problemsavailable from Sophia Institute Press. 

Fr. Joseph M. Esper

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Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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