Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Brief Pause in the Action

After arguably the best retreat I've had since I made the Spiritual Exercises (January '05), I am now back in Detroit. These are, to be sure, very busy days: I have a lot of odds-and-ends to take care of before I leave for the Netherlands next Saturday.

I have been meaning to share with my readers a little suggestion on some summer reading. Over the past few months, I have been very much taken with the writings of Josef Pieper, especially three lovely texts: Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and The Silence of St. Thomas. Just a few little nuggets I thought worthwhile to share:

But of course [this] listening is not concerned solely with grasping the substance. It is also directed fully at the interlocutor as a person; it draws its vitality from respect for the other's dignity, and even gratitude toward him - gratitude for the increase in knowledge which is derived even from error. "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it."
  The plain text conveys the voice of Pieper. He writes clearly and elegantly using prose that is readily digestible and often arresting in its beauty. The boldfaced type is a quote drawn from Saint Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics). How timely to hear this again when some of our nation's best-selling books bear titles such as Arguing with Idiots, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I could go on, but you get the picture. I think it's funny that Pieper's command of Thomas Aquinas enables him to grasp a single, incisive observation from the Angelic Doctor and deploy it in a way that helps us to realize that the ceaseless march of progress in technology may be masquerading a corruption of charity. Maybe it's high time we recover a bit of the charity of Saint Thomas!

Perhaps you might consider this quote: "One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one's work." Taken from Max Weber, most of us recoil at the suggestion that we live only for our work. Yet, is that not the case these days? Traditional liberal arts colleges are hacking away at core courses so that students can focus more and more on pre-professional courses; high schools have begun to consider if they mightn't offer more 'practical' courses of study. In short, it appears that the expectation is that our education must do something, rather than contribute to our humanity. The message sent to students is clear: you are what you do, you are worth only what you earn. I can't help but note the irony that I observe on Independence Day that a growing consensus in education is that you are truly free only to the extent that you make yourself a cog in a corporate wheel.

Pieper observes that we have become ensnared by the artes serviles - that we accomplish something through our action, through our hard work. This is not to say that we do not need action or that we do not need to accomplish things. Surely, we do! Yet when our accomplishments are the sole measure of our humanity, when we have been reduced to being functionaries of a larger corporate apparatus, we lose something of our humanity. Hence Pieper's call for a reclamation of the artes liberales, the liberal arts, as offering humans an opportunity to take a wider look at the world. The "liberal arts" enable humans to contemplate and reflect, to stand in wonder at creation, and gives them the space to be still.

Having just returned from retreat, after a very busy year teaching, this insight echoes in my heart. It was so refreshing to have eight days to rest, pray, read, walk, and just be one with God. I could look back upon the entirety of the year and make a personal assessment of it; I didn't have to measure it against metrics or in terms of job performance. I could ask, "was this year satisfying, nourishing, exciting?" In other words, the leisure of my retreat - truly a vacation with God - gave me the chance to ask what the year had meant rather than what the year had produced.

I should think that this is not "ivory tower" nonsense. Each one of us can, with some effort, shut off the computer and silence the cell phone and take a little bit of time for reflection. Perhaps a nice walk without the Bluetooth attached. Maybe coffee with a friend where you just chat. An evening spent with a loved where you watch a movie or see a performance and then discuss what it meant. Even a family activity can turn into an opportunity for leisure, for the rest that makes us truly human, if we explore the meaning of an activity together.

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