“This is the will of God, your holiness.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3
St. Paul was not speaking only to nuns, priests, and married people in his first letter to the Thessalonians. God wills that everyone be holy. He wants everyone to know the peace, joy, and freedom of being in communion with Him – that is what holiness is. The three primary ways that God calls someone to attain that end are the religious life, the priesthood, and marriage. These three vocations give definitive direction to the lives of men and women seeking communion with God, but they are means to the end that is possible even now.
We grow in communion with God now – in the present, not in the future or the past. At present you are college students, and the life of a college student provides ample opportunities to become holy. Perhaps the greatest of those opportunities is study.
Regardless of your major, dedication to study can be an extremely fruitful endeavor, and its potential goes beyond simply offering up a sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong – if you see your classes as a “necessary evil” to get a job, a good starting point to transform your frustration into freedom is by offering it up for those you love. Pope Benedict XVI commented on this practice in paragraph 40 of his encyclical, Spe salvi. Offering to God the frustration that you experience in your studies for a friend or family member in need can be a beautiful prayer pleasing to the Lord and a source of motivation when classes seem particularly meaningless.
Studying, however, can serve a much nobler purpose than merely matter for sacrifice. It is a privileged vehicle to bring us into communion with God, to make us holy. To understand this, we need to recognize what makes for authentic communion, and for a good illustration, we can look to the relationship between spouses.
Man and woman enjoy mutual communion through knowledge and love of one another – even more so than physical intimacy. If physical intimacy were the greatest expression of mutual communion with another, there would be no difference in the communion between husband and wife and the “communion” forced upon an unwilling victim.
Of course, that is not the case. In marriage, man and woman attain mutual communion through deep knowledge and love of each other. With the advent of social media, coming to know your future spouse generally starts with looking at what the other has posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Perhaps mutual friends later place them in the same social gatherings, which allow them both to witness how the other interacts with their friends.
This initial “investigation” finally leads them to seek more private settings where they can share more deeply, where they can reveal who they are more fully. The two come to know one another in a way that their mutual friends do not, and that knowledge leads to a stronger love. They are growing in communion long before they express that knowledge and love in the marital act.
God wills that we grow in communion with Him now, even before you give definitive direction to your lives through vocational vows. And He accomplishes His will by bringing us to know and love Him. Studying has such great potential to help us grow in holiness because it is a privileged means of coming to know Him more fully and love Him more deeply.
No matter what your major is, you are studying in some way the creation of God, who reveals Himself in His work. To return to our analogy, studying the creation of God is like the guy looking up a girl who has piqued his interest on social media. Similar to post on Instagram, creation is available for everyone to see. The laws of physics, the makeup of living bodies, the interrelation of human beings on all levels of society – God created them, and He did so in a particular way, which tells us something about Him.
“You have disposed all things by measure and number and weight.” Wisdom 11:20
Studying engineering, biology, and political science is looking at the particular way that God has disposed all things, and it allows us to know something about Him.
Of course, the information that the guy is able to attain through social media is not enough; he wants to know more. God also wants us to know Him more intimately than what the study of His creation allows. That is why He shared Himself more fully through the prophets in the Old Testament and most fully through His Son in the New:
“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.” Hebrews 1:1-2
Coming to know God through prayer – the study of Scripture, the reception of the sacraments, the liturgical and devotional life of the Church – is like the more private settings where the guy and girl share themselves more fully, where they come to know each other in a way beyond what you can see on Instagram.
In order to take advantage of the opportunity that college life provides to grow in holiness, your studies must be animated by prayer. Otherwise, they can stay at the level of a “necessary evil” or remain unconnected from the path to deeper communion with God – like seeing pictures on social media that do not lead to an actual relationship. But in the context of a relationship, our studies can magnify the fruitfulness of prayer.
I remember fondly the days when I experienced the fruitfulness of study. I was in my first year – first months, really – of seminary. At that time, I was dedicating 30 minutes in prayer to reflecting upon the daily Mass readings. It was a practice that I had some familiarity with in college, and since I was riding a wave of fresh motivation that new beginnings always bring, I thought I would give it another try.
As I sat down to pray in those first months, months that I finally began to take study seriously, I found Scripture coming alive in a way that I had never experienced. Peace, joy, and enthusiasm welled in my heart as I made new connections, applications, and insights into God’s Word. I left prayer every morning excited to go to class because my studies were leading me into deeper communion with our Lord.
The more I studied, the better I prayed, and the better I prayed, the more I wanted to study. It was a beautiful and mutually enriching experience that I never anticipated.
Although that experience occurred in seminary, my major at that time was not theology. I was studying philosophy – I was reflecting upon creation, looking at what everyone can see. The study of philosophy deepened my knowledge of God and strengthened my love for Him. My studies were helping me to grow in holiness.
Studying in a privileged means of growing in communion with God. It is very likely that you will never have the time to dedicate to study like you have in your college years. Take advantage of it. Don’t miss out on this chance to grow in the knowledge and love of God. There is no need to wait for vocational vows. Holiness awaits you now.
“This is the will of God, your holiness.” 1 Thessalonians 4:3
Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales
- A great primer on the spiritual life, which allows for fruitful study in any major. Here is an excerpt that is relevant to growing in holiness as a student:
“When he created things God commanded plants to bring forth their fruits, each one according to its kind, and in like manner he commands Christian, the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each according to his position and vocation. Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the worker, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl, and the married woman… True devotion does no injury to one’s vocation or occupation, but on the contrary adorns and beautifies it. All kinds of precious stones take on greater luster when dipped into honey, each according to its color. So also every vocation becomes more agreeable when united with devotion… Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to a perfect life.
Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II
- An encyclical on the relation between faith and reason. Here is an excerpt:
This truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend,29 and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This unity of truth, natural and revealed, is embodied in a living and personal way in Christ, as the Apostle reminds us: “Truth is in Jesus” (cf. Eph 4:21; Col 1:15-20). He is the eternal Word in whom all things were created, and he is the incarnate Word who in his entire person 30 reveals the Father (cf. Jn 1:14, 18). What human reason seeks “without knowing it” (cf. Acts 17:23) can be found only through Christ: what is revealed in him is “the full truth” (cf. Jn 1:14-16) of everything which was created in him and through him and which therefore in him finds its fulfilment (cf. Col 1:17).
How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren
- A great book on how to approach study in general. Here are a couple of excerpts:
“….a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
“Television, radio, and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props. They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from the outside. But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited. They are like drugs. We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them. Eventually, they have little or no effect. Then, if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And when we cease to grow, we begin to die.”
photo from Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
Fr. Greg Gerhart is the Associate Pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Center. Before entering seminary, Fr. Greg graduated from Texas A&M University and worked at The Pines, a Catholic youth camp in East Texas. He studied Moral Theology and Bioethics and is also interested in Liturgy and Social Justice. Fr. Greg enjoys playing sports!