Study and the Prayer of Faith
Orson Pratt Professor of Mathematics, Brigham Young University
"You should pray about your research," my wife, Ardyth, would tell me. "You've been working hard trying to serve other people and you could use some help with the things you like best."
"But I don't want help," I argued. "Half or three-quarters of the fun is figuring things out for yourself. I'm not just interested in the answer; I want to understand. I'm not concerned with being the first to discover these things; without doubt other people elsewhere in space or time already know all the things I'm thinking about if those things are worth anything at all. After all, space is big and time is long, and there are a lot of smart, curious beings in the universe."
"Still," Ardyth insisted, "you should pray about your research."
And so I decided, why not? It would be an interesting experiment. I started early in a summer that was to be devoted to research. The problem I was considering was a hard one that I had been working on, off and on, for five years. I felt that I was really near the end. I felt that just one little insight was all I needed—the ideal occasion for prayer and receiving an answer. And so I would hide in the library at the beginning of each day, think about what direction might be the right one to pry loose that additional bit of needed insight (the one that would explain everything), pray for direction and enlightenment, and set out to work. And, amazingly to me, each day I would feel instructed and directed. I would feel at day's end that I had traveled a great distance, and that only a little bit of insight was still needed to finish the problem. And so the next day would begin, just a little way from the end of the problem, and I would travel another great distance until I understood a great deal more and only a little distance remained to travel.
So went the whole summer until at the end of the summer I was, actually, at the end of the problem. I understood it, and the little bit of needed insight was spread over the summer and was full of miraculous mathematical wonders, much deeper than I had dreamed—and I marveled. I marveled not so much at the mathematics, because I had seen beautiful mathematics before, had occasionally had a hand in its discovery, and had even come to expect things to be richer and more beautiful than I could dream or than I could have made them had I been the creator of the universe; rather, I marveled at my naïveté that led me to expect my hard problem to have an easy answer, to assume that one little inspiration was all I needed, that I needed just one little word in the ear. I marveled at the distance I had traveled and at the length of my instruction. The specific theorem is of little consequence to the reader, but to me it is a miracle theorem that taught me a lot about prayer, about instruction, and about patient beings who care about our concerns.
My answers to prayer have been mostly nonspecific, with a few exceptions. There was the one that told me when I was first counselor in a bishopric about to be dissolved, "No, you won't be called as the new bishop, but the new bishop will call you as Scoutmaster." When we were considering coming to BYU after seventeen wonderful research years at the University of Wisconsin in lovely, cold, hot, humid, green Madison, an answer to another prayer told me, "No, you will not have great success in your research at BYU." This last answer is one I try to forget and bury in hard work.
Lauren was our fourth child, of six. She was born with Down's syndrome and a multitude of attendant problems: mental retardation, no rectal opening, heart valve problems, floppy neck, small limbs, tongue thrust. She spun her crib toys with her feet since her legs reached farther than her short arms. We thought of her as our Raggedy Ann baby. If she were living now, she would be twenty-three years old (she was born in 1973) and would exactly fill the gap between Michael and Jonathan.
Circulatory problems made Lauren susceptible to respiratory difficulties, and during her first year she was often sick. Pneumonia took her in and out of the hospital. We came to know most of the nurses. One night at 2:00 we awoke to her sudden cry—and found that she had stopped breathing. Before help arrived, Ardyth managed to get Lauren breathing again with a thump to the sternum. Lauren was sick during most of the month of December and wanted only Ardyth to care for her. By Christmas morning, Ardyth was exhausted. We decided that Lauren surely needed a priesthood blessing. As always, I was very anxious since I felt responsible to be worthy and to say the right things—as though it were I who gave the blessing rather than God.
Shortly after I had pronounced the blessing, Ardyth said, "She wants you."
"Right!" I thought doubtfully, "She never wants me; she always wants her mother."
But Ardyth was right: Lauren would not be at peace that Christmas day unless I was holding her. She would not sleep unless I held her. She would not nurse at her mother's breast unless I was plainly in sight over her mother's shoulder. For one day, Lauren's only Christmas day, Lauren was her father's girl rather than her mother's. For precisely one day of her one and a half years, Lauren was not her mother's girl but mine. At the time we thought that it was a wonderful priesthood gift to Ardyth to save her from total exhaustion. We have come to view that day as a gift to me. For one day of her life, Lauren was my girl.
When doctors tried to repair Lauren's faulty heart valves the following September, we fasted and gave her a blessing. For the last time I felt terrible anxiety as I gave a priesthood blessing. We so wanted her to live and to be healthy, and I blessed her to do so. And I was wrong, and she died. We could hardly bear to break our fast. It gave us such comfort. For the first time we understood the scripture wherein the Lord says, "that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer" (D&C 59:13–14). I resolved never again to be anxious about a priesthood blessing, but to listen as carefully as I could to the Spirit, for it is the Lord who blesses.
After our move to BYU we found friends who wanted to read the Book of Mormon with us. President Benson had just asked us all to read it individually every day. With these friends, I enjoyed feeling the exuberance of the angel who, as he instructed Nephi, could not restrain his own comment:
Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God . . . ; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. (1 Nephi 11:21-23).
I love an angel who bursts out with such exclamations. I also love the unity of truth taught by the temple ceremony and by the scriptures:
Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ. (Moroni 7:19).
I love the same unity of truth taught by one of the world's great mathematicians, Henri Poincaré:
Truth should not be feared, for it alone is beautiful.
When I speak here of truth, assuredly I refer first to scientific truth, but I also mean moral truth. . . . I cannot separate them, and whosoever loves the one cannot help loving the other. . . . These two sorts of truth when discovered give the same joy; each when perceived beams with the same splendor, so that we must see it or close our eyes. . . .
In a word, I liken the two truths, because the same reasons make us love them and because the same reasons make us fear them.1
I love the example of people around me who live my every dream of holiness. Some of them hold high position in the Church or the community; some of them hold none. For me, goodness is more important than knowledge and knowledge is more important than power. It is a miracle to me that the most powerful being in the universe is also good. Power and goodness are not highly correlated in our world. I would rather do what is good and right than have a testimony that the Church is true, and I consider it a miracle that the evidence I trust indicates that it is true. I am delighted when I see heroes and heroines around me living its precepts. I am saddened at the occasional person who values its authority more than its goodness. I find most compelling the sentiments of George Cannon, the immigrant who, upon reading the Book of Mormon, uttered the following evaluation: "An evil-minded man could not have written it, and a good man would not have tried to write it with intent to deceive."2 I feel the goodness of the Book of Mormon as I study and pray, and I rejoice, and "Yea," says my personal angel, "it is most joyous to the soul."
1. Henri Poincaré, The Value of Science (New York: Dover, 1958), 11–12.
2. Beatrice Cannon Evans and Janath Russell Cannon, eds., Cannon Family Historical Treasury (Salt Lake City: George Cannon Family Association, 1967), 35.