Prayer, fasting and philanthropy are usually named as the traditional spiritual disciplines. They have been part of Christian life since its founding. They involved our whole being: mind, body and spirit. We also approach them holistically because these are overlapping dimensions of our existence. Prayer nourishes the spirit and can involve the body. Fasting is training of the body. Philanthropy is also activity of the body, especially involving our hands as we care for others. Of course, our minds are involved with all of them.
But what engages and feeds the mind? Study. For many years, I have argued that there is an additional spiritual discipline, that of study.
When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, the discipline of study was essential. Four or five evenings per week (I was working full-time at the time), two to three hours had to be dedicated to reading, research, library work, and then writing, rewriting and editing. This was a continual pattern for nearly two years, in order to complete the project. There was little extra time, just some necessary breaks. After I had earned my degree, I bumped into a friend who asked me, “Where have you been?” Indeed, I had pretty much slipped out of view for that period. But I was engaged in the intense discipline of study.
I am not suggesting that everyone write a doctoral dissertation to learn the habit and discipline of study. Rather I am affirming that study is a spiritual discipline, one that I had to master at an intense level to earn my doctorate (and of course, all my educational experiences prior to it had prepared me for this), but one that is also necessary to grow in our spiritual lives. It is a true ascesis with rich historical antecedents, a essential part of our Church history.
What are the elements of this discipline?
The dictionary defines study as “a state of contemplation” and the “application of the mental faculties to the acquisition of knowledge.” For most of us, especially when it comes to matters of faith, religion and theology, the acquisition of knowledge usually begins by reading a book or some other significant text. But from the definition, we can see that one can also study natural phenomena—a work of art, a piece of music, even a building. For ease, we’ll use the book as our example.
A book is an extended presentation by an author, with information and further commentary on that information, meant to convince you of its accuracy and wisdom, and lead you to a new way of understanding. A book is a conversation between the author and you separated by time and space. When you read a Father of the Church, you are in a conversation with that Father, even though he lived centuries ago in a distant land. But the conversation is not one-way because you are able to form your own thoughts, reactions, questions, insights and conclusions about the topic. You can be taking notes in the margins, with that yellow highlighter, or in a separate notebook. In a sense, you are writing your own book about the same topic.
You have an advantage over the author you are reading, because he or she only had the use of sources that existed before that book was written. You have access to all the writings and knowledge that have come after that. For example, I completed my dissertation in 1997. In the eighteen years since, many more books have been written on the topics I investigated. How would they influence my dissertation if I were writing it today.
Study involves time. Have you ever started a book, read chapter one, put it down for a month, and then tried to read chapter two? That’s not really study! Study involves creating a predictable, regular schedule and adhering to it as best as possible. Just like a “prayer rule” involves set times for prayer, a study rule is needed to become skilled at study. Creating a schedule and setting a time is important. Will it be one hour per week or thirty minutes twice a week? In my dissertation example, I studied four to five evenings per week. I always set Thursday and Saturday evenings as my free evenings, and depending on other things, one other night could be a free night or a study night.
Study often involves repetition, revisiting the same material. Once is usually not enough. You can read the same passage in the Bible repeatedly and learn something new each time. The same is true for a book or other object of study. In order to grasp what an author is presenting, you will probably return to it many times.
Study can be done alone or in a group. This is the purpose of a class. I worked on my dissertation alone, but I had regular meetings with my advisors. We didn’t study together, but they commented on every page and idea I wrote. The comments fell under three categories: 1) You should look into this issue further. Read the following… 2) Are you sure you really want to say that?; and 3) You are on the right track. Keep going! When a group studies a text together, not only are you having a conversation with the author, you are also having a conversation with a teacher, someone who has looked into the matter more closely and can guide you. You are also in a discussion with the group, gaining from their perspectives and having your perspectives questioned, challenged or affirmed.
Study often leads to more study. Once you get involved with a text, questions and ideas will emerge that will require further study. Imagine reading a passage in the Bible and a patristic commentary about it, then reading a new father on the same passage, then reading a contemporary scholar on the same passage. Was there an idea that you needed to know more about because you lacked the background? Was there a particular idea that you wanted to explore further because you found it so interesting? Did you want to examine the ideas of those who disagree with or have a different perspective on the ideas that you were studying?
Study is an act of contemplation, per the dictionary. Study invites us to reflect on what we are learning so that we can “recreate” and deeply appropriate what we have learned in our heads, hearts, and hands. Study is a catalyst for the work of the Church.
Anton C. Vrame, PhD, is Director of the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and author of The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1999).