Rules for Christian Intellectuals, Part III

The intellectual vocation has its sufferings, and this is how the Lord makes us holy in our state of life. As Sertillanges writes, “one attains salvation only through the cross.”

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The world is falling apart. Gunmen kill civilians in office buildings and schools; babies die in wars and in abortion clinics. People suffer poverty, sexual violence, hunger. Our planet is rife with racism and tyranny and inequality. Given the disasters of our fallen world, why should we be talking about the intellectual life? What can the ivory tower do about Mordor?

But the world has always been falling apart. The difference is that after the Incarnation of Christ, there’s a solution: the building up of the Kingdom of God. Empowered by Jesus of Nazareth, we lay siege to the gates of hell and take Earth back for God and for mankind. We each have a role to play in this grace-filled insurgence known as Christianity. And for the French Dominican, Fr. A.G. Sertillanges, one of those roles is that of the Christian intellectual.

As we’ve seen in the first and second parts of this series on Sertillanges’s book, The Intellectual Life, the Christian thinker has a vocation, a mission for the sake of all men. We can lead men to truth, encourage them in goodness, and bring them into encounters with beauty. In this, the final part of our series, we’ll see some last practical rules for work, as well as some advice about the trials and joys of the life of the mind.

Take useful notes

“Memory is an unreliable servant,” writes Sertillanges. So we must write things down. But he warns not to feverishly transcribe everything we find: “such a congestion of material,” he writes, will “overwhelm us afterwards and be quite unusable.” To avoid this, it can help to read and take notes while keeping your final project or destination in mind. This end goal, Fr. Sertillanges writes, “is like a sieve which retains the desired grain and lets the rest slip through.” You want to understand the chronology of the French Revolution, or the process of photosynthesis, or Emerson’s idea of the Soul. Let your purpose guide your notes, and you won’t feel obligated to record every fact and idea you find.

Fr. Sertillanges also suggests that note-taking is a creative process. When we take notes, we should be thinking, not mechanically copying. We produce something new from meeting another mind: “I read, and I write while reading; but I write down what I think after contact with someone else, more than I write down that other person’s thought.” In other words, enter into dialogue with what you read. Draw connections. Respond. Let your notes be an expression of our own thought, building on what you find in your studies.

Produce something

“You have come now to the moment for producing results,” Sertillanges writes. The Christian intellectual does not just study: she must write, publish, speak. “One cannot be for ever learning and for ever getting ready,” he says. Fr. Sertillanges also knows that the process of writing is part of our process of thinking. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, “I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say.”

Publication of some sort will also benefit your intellectual work, Sertillanges insists:

Contact with the public will compel you to do better; well-deserved praise will stimulate you; criticism will try out your work; you will be as it were forced to make progress instead of stagnating, which might be the result of perpetual silence.

Use time wisely

We live in a time-wasting world. Every day, I have to fight the distractions of social media, YouTube, e-mail, fountain pen forums (sorry, I’m a nerd), and much more. But even when I successfully shut these out, it can be difficult to structure my work time productively. We all experience moments of intense focus, where the work carries us along and time flies. But those moments ebb and flow. We get tired; we get to the end of the workday and have only an hour left—and it’s easy to throw that time away. But Fr. Sertillanges reminds us that

these odds and ends of time, which indeed do not lend themselves to anything serious, are just the moments for preparing the work or touching it up, for verifying references, looking up notes, sorting papers, etc.

Then, the next time we’re ready to enter into deep focus, all our materials are ready for us. These “lesser” tasks are also part of the intellectual life, and can help us fully use our precious working hours.

Make the trials fruitful

The intellectual vocation has its sufferings, and this is how the Lord makes us holy in our state of life. As Sertillanges writes, “one attains salvation only through the cross.”

Dissatisfaction with oneself, sluggishness of inspiration, the indifference of those about one, envy, misunderstandings, sarcastic remarks, acts of injustice, the desertion of leaders, the falling-away of friends, all these things can be part of the cross, and all of them come in their turn.

Sertillanges especially warns about the trial of criticism, but challenges us to put it to good use. He calls us to consider the critique. Is it just? Is it accurate? Then take it to heart.

If the criticism is right and you wrong, do you mean to resist truth? Even if it had its origin in some enmity have the courage to acknowledge your error.

But when we suffer unjust criticism, we have a chance to grow in virtue. Pray for your detractors. Pray the “Litany of Humility,” which asks God for deliverance from “the desire of being approved,” and from the “fear of being calumniated.” “Real spiritual strength,” Sertillanges reminds us, “is intensified in persecution.” “We have said that intellectual life is heroism,” he writes, “would you want heroism to cost nothing?”

Accept the joys of the work

But along with the trials come joys, for God builds consolations into our vocation to encourage us and draw us upwards to Him. At times, our intellect soars and we experience joy and illumination in understanding some lofty truth:

A sense of altitude awes but also thrills the soul of the worker; he is like the mountaineer amidst rocks and glaciers. The world of ideas opens up scenes more sublime than those of the Alpine landscape, and they fill him with rapture.

Of course, these moments of exhilaration come and go. Ultimately, we can always take joy in serving God. “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work,” Jesus told His disciples. If God has called us to the intellectual life, then what a mission we have! “If we are here,” Sertillanges says, “it is because God has placed us here.” “Jesus Christ needs our minds for His work,” he insists, “as on earth He needed His own human mind. He has gone, but we continue Him; we have that measureless honour.”

Fr. Sertillanges, who lived and wrote in Europe through the bloody first half of the twentieth century, calls us to consider our mission in our time and place: “What have I to do for this panting, palpitating century?” Strengthened by God, and armed with Fr. Sertillanges’s rules, Christian intellectuals should ask this question, and joyfully take up the work that lies before us.

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About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 27 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.


  1. Thank you Dr. Franklin. “{Mankind finds himself in a state of} pure natural ignorance in which each all men find themselves at birth…{And having acquired all available knowledge of the world} find they know nothing, and come back again to that same ignorance from which they set out, a ‘learned ignorance’ which is conscious of itself.” – Blaise Pascal. “The more you know the bigger and more distant God appears to be, but in the acceptance of the futility of ever understanding God through reason comes the intuitive, reciprocal unconditional love of God for the individual and by the individual for God” – Baruch Spinoza, (Paraphrased and Catholicized by me).

  2. Speaking of notes, do you have any tips on how to take lecture notes? E.g., is it better to use loose-leaf paper/binder or a notebook for lecture notes? What do you think Sertillanges would recommend?

    • In “The Intellectual Life”(Chapter VII-C, Notes), Sertillanges does not address “lecture notes,” but he does comment on two kinds of research notes, “corresponding to the remote and the immediate preparation of our work.”

      FOR EXAMPLE, if the research is more open-ended “to form and feed the mind […] with facts and so on which may be useful later on,” then notes are haphazard” [so, maybe leaving spaces or even loose-leaf, or separate note cards?], so as not to “lessen the fortuitous element in them.” On the other hand, if there is a clear “view to producing something,” the notes “closely follow the subject before you and form a more or less organic whole.”

      In both cases, “excess is to be avoided—such a congestion of material as to overwhelm us afterwards, and be quite unusable. Some people have so many and such full note-books that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them.” Lecture notes, with the more immediate application to later examinations (as a guiding purpose), might draw from both wells.

      And, with a longer view, IF listening to a lecture is like reading a book, THEN the notes “should be not only suited to you, but should be your own ….[and] emanate from your thinking. Reading itself [or listening] should awaken reflection…I write down what I think after contact with someone else [book, lecturer] more than I write down that other person’s thought…”

  3. The Creator has endowed us with magnificent minds to complement our bodies.

    Isaiah 64:8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

    Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?

    Romans 9:21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?

    Sometimes we view another as deficient in some area, yet God may have that soul an extraordinary blessing that we don’t readily perceive. Whatever a mans gift he should use it to the glory of God to benefit his fellow man.

  4. What do you think Sertillanges would think about digital note taking tools, like Apple Note and Evernote? Have you found those tools useful or do you hand write notes? Thanks!

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