When I was in college I often took delight in the Letters to the Editor of the student newspaper. It was like a circus of the absurd: in the left circle, the freshman, full of sound and fury, who has just realized that the dining hall will not be serving meat on the Fridays of Lent; in the right circle, the alumnus who is inexplicably still concerned about the daily affairs of an institution he has long since left; and, center stage, well worth the price of admission, the graduate student. In a way, one could forgive the freshman his zeal or the alumnus his nostalgia—but the graduate student? Shouldn’t he be above this sort of thing?
There was one graduate student whose letters were particularly delightful. He was studying that queen of all sciences, Theology. He would write in about whatever absurd idea he was trying to dogmatically define at the moment, each letter stranger than the last. But his crowning achievement, I recall, was his treatise on prayer. “We graduate students in the theology department,” he began (perhaps to the distress of his colleagues), “like to laugh at the idea of the undergraduates praying that they’ll do well on exams.”
Now, admittedly, it is certainly imprudent, if not presumptuous, to trust in prayer while neglecting one’s duty to study diligently. And yet, I would suggest that our friendly graduate student is missing the deeper point about prayer in relation to study. God, the omniscient creator of everything that can be known and of all rational creatures who are able to know, can freely bestow wisdom on whomever he sees fit. Wisdom can be bestowed either as an honorary doctorate or an earned degree; it is a gift, and God gives it not only to those who rise early, but also to his beloved while they slumber.
One instance of this is King Solomon, the son of David. In the book of Kings, the Lord comes to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask what I shall give you” (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon replies that he wants the wisdom to govern his kingdom well. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas takes up this passage when arguing for the necessity of the cooperation of the will with the movements of God’s grace. Answering the objection that, just as God gave wisdom to Solomon while he was asleep, so God can bestow sanctifying grace on any man without the movement of his free will, Thomas states, “Solomon neither merited nor received wisdom whilst asleep; but it was declared to him in his sleep that on account of his previous desire wisdom would be infused into him by God. Hence it is said in his person: ‘I wished, and understanding was given unto me’” (Wisdom 7:7).
This passage acquires a certain poignancy when we realize that, in the Dominican liturgy, the quotation that St. Thomas takes from the Book of Wisdom is used as part of the First Reading on his feast day: “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me…” Each year, the Dominican Order commemorates the great wisdom of our brother with these words of Solomon. Reading the passage from the Summa, we are reminded that Thomas’s wisdom, like Solomon’s, was not simply his natural possession, achieved by his own industry, but was also God’s gift, bestowed for the good of the whole Church in response to Thomas’s fervent prayers for wisdom and understanding. Incidentally, some of these prayers were written down and are still used by students today—both fervent and desperate alike.
In another place, Thomas makes an important clarification: “A man naturally acquires wisdom and knowledge from God by his own talent and study. Hence it is miraculous when a man is made wise or learned outside this order.” Thus, for Thomas it is possible, if unusual, for God to make us wise outside the normal course of human effort. (Undergraduates may pray to their hearts’ content.) But more importantly, even in the normal course of study and learning, the wisdom and knowledge we acquire are from God, for it is God who has given us our talents, our powers of reason and sensation, and indeed all of the things that we sense or reason about.
Towards the end of his life, Thomas had an encounter similar to Solomon’s. As Thomas was praying early one morning in the chapel of St. Nicholas in Naples, the sacristan saw him levitating and heard a voice coming from the crucifix: “You have written well of me, Thomas; what reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas replied, “Nothing other than You, Lord” (non nisi te, Domine). Although the words are different, Thomas’s request echoes that of Solomon, for what is Solomon’s Wisdom but Christ himself? In pursuing wisdom, Thomas was really pursuing Christ, and helping others to come to know him. That realization might even give a graduate student pause.