The feminine call to the intellectual life

A scribe tests Jesus, asking him, what is the greatest commandment?

Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).

What does it mean to love Our Lord with all our mind, and how can we do this practically speaking? What does this mean for me as a single person, mom, academic or religious?

The collection of essays in “With All Her Mind: A Call to the Intellectual Life” will help you answer those questions. Edited by Rachel Bulman — who worked on this project while caring for her newborn twins (and four other children)! — the collection shares 17 essays, written by authors that include Sister Miriam James Heidland, Haley Stewart and Elizabeth Scalia.

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In Rachel’s words, “We must realize that the pursuit of God is not confined to any framework precisely because he pursues you tirelessly in every single moment of your life.” For Rachel, this meant even in the season of raising littles.

While it’s hard to pick just a few of the essays to feature, I think it is important to start with love — the topic of the first essay by Sister Josephine Garrett.

Foundations of the intellectual life

In her opening paragraph, Sister Josephine writes, “In a perfect world, we would simply say, the prerequisite to the intellectual life is love … but, in order to know how to make this response of love, we need to know how to have a conversation with the Beloved.” Silence and prayer with our beloved, with God himself, will open our hearts with a longing to know him more. She recommends that we incorporate into our prayer a reading of Scripture with lectio divina, writing in a prayer journal, or praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Whatever form of prayer is best for you, what is important is that you attune yourself to the voice of God. “With a life of prayer, cultivated in silence, our pursuits in the intellectual life will blossom before us.”

Then, after this life of prayer has been cultivated, our pursuit of the intellectual life will be rightly ordered. This pursuit can be fostered through reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, participating in a Bible study and studying primary sources like papal documents and the lives of the saints.

“Seek to know him as he knows you. … This will take your whole life, and rightly so; and one day you will see him face to face and know him. And thanks, in part, to the gift of the intellectual life, you will be at home with this eternal love.”

The joy of thinking

Now, we may not all be able to relate to having the ability to speak at 6 months, walking at 8 months or reading at age 3 like Emily Stimpson Chapman did. But what we can relate to is her experience of God’s generously given grace, something she experienced while reading G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy.”

Chapman had left the Catholic Church in college, having been convinced by a cute boy at school that a personal relationship with Jesus wasn’t compatible with being a Roman Catholic. Then, years later, while she was working on Capitol Hill, she met a different guy in her office who was Catholic. He went to daily Mass, prayed the Rosary and went to confession. He was the gentleman who lent her his copy of “Orthodoxy.” Through her reading, she expressed, “all my defenses were down, and grace rushed in.” In just a couple of weeks, she found herself regularly going to Mass and confession. But she needed to get her hands on more books!

“It was all joy. And not just the natural joy of losing myself in a good book, but the supernatural joy that is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, an encounter with Christ that helps us to see goodness, beauty, and hope even in the midst of sorrow. … It touches everything, illuminates everything, transforms everything.”

Chapman offers three great tips on finding joy in the intellectual life.

  1. Don’t try to seek knowledge outside of the Faith.
  2. Read what brings you pleasure. Study what captures your imagination.
  3. Focus. Give whatever you are reading, writing or thinking about your full attention. Make space in your head or heart for knowledge to plant itself there and start bearing fruit.

When keeping your gaze on Christ, studying what you love, and giving your study your total attention, Chapman says that joy will find you.

Pursuit in the drudgery

I’ll close with a line from Leah Libresco Sargeant’s essay, which has been sticking with me. “Women’s work frequently follows this pattern of effort and then additional labor to hide the evidence of effort.”

Oh, how I relate. Morning routine: Make breakfast, serve breakfast, wipe off tiny fingers and sticky faces, crumbs off the table, and food thrown on the floor. Lunch: repeat. Dinner: repeat. We work hard to put food on the table, but the great thought and effort of putting it together is quickly hidden in the refrigerator right after the meal has nourished our bodies. But I’m not the only one who experiences this.

The cloistered religious can relate. “Work reaches its completion only in death — and the consummation is not visible to those left behind on earth.” That is why great humility and love are essential. Chapman quotes St. Josemaría Escrivá, who wrote, “it is in the simplicity of your ordinary work, in the monotonous details of each day, that you have to find the secret, which is hidden from so many, of something great and new: Love.”

Through our love, no act of service will be too small to give honor and glory to our Creator. Through our daily tasks, we are purified. “Painting the fence post again and again is the work of sustaining national institutions, but it’s also the work of sustaining a home, a relationship.” Through the sustaining of our homes and relationships, we are given countless opportunities to love, which is the foundation of the intellectual life.

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