It really helps ... and a parish priest explains why.
Over the next couple of weeks, millions of young Americans at high schools and universities will be taking their final exams with the hope of moving on to the next stage in their lives. This period is both stressful and exhausting. It requires preparation on many levels. So what role could prayer play in helping students tackle this challenging time with a little more peace of mind?
Often, when the pressure of exams gets to be too much, students turn to God as a last resort. (As the saying goes, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools.”) As happens with most stressful situations in life, there are many people who pray when they need help, but tend to forget about God once they’ve got what they need. However, there is much more to prayer that asking for help.
Prayer — which is, above all, a means to become closer to God — generally takes on four basic forms: prayer of petition — to gain a personal favor; prayer of intercession — to ask a favor for others; prayer of thanksgiving — to thank God for His favors; and prayer of praise — in order to praise God without expecting anything in return.
These four kinds of prayer, each in its own way, can help students to approach the exam period with a little more serenity and perspective. While praying for help to remember, for example, the terminology for our biology exam, we can also pray for other students who are in more challenging situations than we are, offer a “thank you” to God for being in a position to get an education, and praise God for the complexity of the human body, for we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
The Holy Spirit as our teacher
There is a guide, a teacher, or perhaps a “private tutor” who’s always by our side, and who plays a hidden but vital role in our studies: the Holy Spirit. “Calling upon Him will allow you to be in the best conditions to study for and take your exams,” explains Fr. Arnaud Franc, pastor of a university parish in Toulouse, France. He also advises “not placing a barrier between your student life and your spiritual life.” The gifts of wisdom, strength, and counsel that the Holy Spirit gives us are indispensable for being optimally prepared for exams. “It’s important to work actively, while also letting the Holy Spirit do His work,” the priest points out.
Students can also confide their prayer intentions to a variety of saints often invoked for these situations. St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Joseph of Cupertino, and St. Thomas Aquinas are the principle patron saints of students; if our situation is particularly dire — perhaps we’re staring down the barrel of an all-nighter before the exam — we can turn to St. Rita and St. Jude, who are among the saints invoked for hopeless cases or impossible causes.
St. Thomas, whose relics lie in a church just a few steps away from the University of Toulouse, where Fr. Arnaud’s parish is found, wrote this simple and powerful prayer that students can recite during this period:
Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.
Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
the obscurity of sin and ignorance.
Give me a keen understanding,
a retentive memory, and
the ability to grasp things
correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent
of being exact in my explanations
and the ability to express myself
with thoroughness and charm.
Point out the beginning,
direct the progress,
and help in the completion.
I ask this through Christ our Lord.
Of course, we should not hesitate to ask the Holy Family for help as well; St. Joseph, who is patron saint of workers, and the Virgin Mary, who “welcomes the Holy Spirit and bears the Word of God,” both keep special watch over the young, whether they are students or young workers (and we all know that studying takes a lot of work!).
Give studies their true value
Father Arnaud has some words of advice for students who are worried about getting good grades on their exams, and about the possible consequences for their future: “Studying is not an end in itself, but a way of acquiring skills. We must not neglect our studies. Even if we think we’ve chosen the wrong courses, it’s preferable to persevere until the end of the year; otherwise, we risk wasting time. Studying is a treasure which is not available to all, although not everyone appreciates that fact.”
Still, according to Fr. Arnaud, it is necessary to find the right balance to allow students to unwind while maintaining the best conditions for studying for finals. “Partying and ending up with a hangover is obviously not a good idea, but we can take our mind off things by joining in social causes, by spending time with friends, or just by a change of scene,” suggests Fr. Arnaud. His three-part advice: pray, study, unwind.