Beginning class with a prayer: a personal reflection

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Photo by Francesca Norman

Student government president Joseph Scholz and liaison to the university council John Paul Hasson opened the school year by encouraging a community-wide habit of beginning class with the “Our Father.” In response, junior class senator Catherine Schwenk objected to mandatory prayer as exclusionary of non-Catholics and as opposed to The University of Dallas’ “Independent Thinkers” motto. 

On the one hand, UD has never had a top-down imposition of Catholic culture and fosters a unique spirit of freedom. The University of Dallas qua university appeals to the intellect.

Prospective students cannot know all the richness of humanity they are going to discover through immersion in the Western tradition of the liberal arts and the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Core curriculum and readings, the Rome program, the friendship and conversations introduce them to a wider, deeper, more “Catholic” world.

Freshmen are initially dazed—so many new people to meet, so much apparent free time, so much reading, so many papers. After being pushed through Homer and Virgil in the fall, they make a more conscious decision to come back for Dante and Milton in the spring. You can’t drink the whole tradition in a gulp, but they’ve tasted the Kool-Aid.

Sophomores find that Rome opens their eyes to the richness of their classical and Christian heritage. So many students have told me afterwards that they really wish they had in fact read Aristotle’s Ethics and Dante’s Divine Comedy their freshman year, but they are too far behind to recoup their freshman education.

Juniors almost inevitably lose all their friends if not their minds: Rome friends are scattered as RAs. In student apartments, Old Mill and the condos everyone is too hard at work on major coursework to spend much time together.

Only seniors in their spring semester are awash with nostalgia and a sense of the brevity of their time left together and the value of the education they have bit by bit received. 

And… with regard to prayer? A hardy few seniors creep out of bed to hike over to Cistercian Abbey for 6:30 a.m. Mass… realizing that in the real world, post-UD, the Tower bells will not toll to call you to noon Mass in the middle of your workday.

UD fosters a gradual blossoming of a deeper faith commitment: enlightening the intellect, strengthening the will and ordering the passions.

But, on the other hand, I have been encouraged—“encouraged” was the word Scholz and Hasson used—to begin class with a prayer, specifically with the “Our Father.” 

I have acquiesced and found it genuinely helpful. Prayer is an “altogether fitting and proper” acknowledgement of the insufficiency of our closed cosmic system, an acknowledgement of the gap between our hi-falutin transcendent desires to grasp truth, beauty, goodness and The One … our laughable human frailty. 

As T. S. Eliot wrote in the midst of the bombing of London:

Trying to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion.

We all need the help of the Word to try to articulate our thoughts in words, and so students seem to appreciate beginning class with a prayer.

In the “Our Father” we dare to say—sinful creatures that we are—“Abba!” What a gutsy acknowledgement of the image of God in each and every human person!

And in the “Our Father” we ask: “Deliver us from evil”—evil in our own minds and hearts and words, not just evil “out there” in the world, acknowledging how hard living up to UD’s motto actually is: Diligite Iustitiam et Caritate.

The University of Dallas is a Catholic university. Prayer is a universal and natural human good. 

Why should we shrink from the “inclusive dialogue regarding the subject of prayer in the classroom” that our students are asking for? In each class, are we not pouring out a libation of time devoted not to the mundane provision of human needs, but to the pursuit of Truth? In what way does this violate our claim to be “Independent Thinkers” in a culture which increasingly excludes God from all forms of public discourse and public education?

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