The Spiritual Practice of Study
In my spiritual life, study is perhaps my most important practice.
I was in school for 30 years and sometimes wondered if there would ever be a time when I wouldn’t formally be a student. My first day of school in a rather strict Catholic elementary school in Detroit was so off-putting that I refused to go the next day, and my mother ordered me to stay in my room until I changed my mind. I also remember my last days of school doing doctoral studies in religion, when I was clicking away on my portable typewriter, using two sheets of carbon paper, to get my dissertation completed.
I didn’t want to serve another year of my sentence. Still, between those two less-than-ideal moments, I loved the process of learning.
In my teens and 20s I lived in a community of friars, a Catholic order dedicated to the monastic life, where study was a spiritual practice. At first, being a serious student didn’t come natural to me. I had grown up in a family of plumbers and was the first, as far as I know, to go to college. (I’m not slighting plumbers. My father taught plumbing like a college professor.)
I can still feel the difference when I’m in the presence of a real intellectual who comes from a family of scholars. Maybe that’s why I was never able to fit into an academic culture and why I have carved out the unusual life of an independent scholar and writer of books in which I try to speak to both the average reader and the academic. The life of a writer has allowed me to remain a monk of sorts, as I surround myself with books and spend time every day studying things that intrigue me. In the monastic life I learned to spend 15 minutes at this and a half hour at that on a schedule that remained the same almost every day of the year. In that spirit, I recommend to everyone 30 minutes or an hour of study each day, learning about something you love, not needing any discipline because you have so much desire.
In my spiritual life, study is perhaps my most important practice. It’s my way of remaining a monk. And I’m worried that it isn’t more widely prized and practiced. If there is one thing I find lacking in the spirituality I come across in my travels, it’s a studied intelligence and sharp wit about things of the spirit. Some of my academic friends don’t like the word spirituality, because spirituality is so often full of emotionalism―emotion without an intelligence.
I admit that study doesn’t seem a very sexy way to be spiritual, and yet I know that there is deep pleasure to be found in good language and exciting ideas. When I’m away from home I yearn to get back to my desk and library and open up a book on, say, some obscure figure in the Italian Renaissance that has a world to reveal to me.
We think of words like school and scholar as being heavy and serious, but in their etymology they mean something like “pause,” “taking a break,” and “leisure.” Study is something you can enjoy when you take a break from the serious work of making a living.
By the way, I had to do a little study just to write about study. I knew that school originally meant “leisure,” but I didn’t realize that its earliest meaning was “to take a break.” Those five minutes of study with my dictionary of Indo-European roots was as much fun as playing tennis―and easier.
People also associate learning with the pain of self-discipline, focusing and turning inward when they’d rather be out in the world. Yes, there is pain in learning, just as in sports, where you put in long hours of practice and give up some freedom and pleasure. But this kind of pain leads to joy. I also suspect that some people reject study and scholars because they are intimidated. They feel they don’t measure up. They turn their frustration with themselves into anger at those who obviously know how to study. It might be better to find your own best style of studying and to focus on the subjects you love, easing the pain and increasing the pleasure.
I’d like to see more people discover the joys of study and understand how it can be the bedrock of a spiritual life. Rich and grounded ideas make for a more secure, interesting, and vibrant life. Anti-intellectualism or the sheer neglect of study not only dulls the mind but flattens out life and makes a person susceptible to the many unworthy ideas and schools of thought that always crop up in the spiritual sphere.
Study can give you strength, vitality, and confidence. It’s worth fitting in an hour of study each day, as the monks do, building your own library, traveling to learn and discover things, and having deep discussions with thoughtful people. You can create your own school, your own style of scholarship, and your own scriptorium―your own place, if only a chair and a lamp, where you can both lose yourself and find yourself in the pleasures of learning.