Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Hard Work of Recapturing the Lightning Vision

Everything I want to write has been percolating in my head. Each day on vacation I had such lovely posts brewing. How we hiked 9.2 miles up and down Old Rag without realizing exactly what a "rock scramble" looked like on the ground, and survived with credit. (Fortunately, we knew enough to leave all but the oldest back at the lodge with the non-hikers.) How Darwin and I laid out on a picnic table at 2 AM like teenagers on a first date, and watched the Perseids in a brilliant Virginia starfield the likes of which I haven't seen since I lived in Virginia as a little girl learning the constellations from my father. How we went to Monticello and surveyed Jefferson's beautiful contribution to the great architecture of the world, the elegant house in which his children worked as slaves. On the pleasure of singing with your siblings, who know exactly where you're going and the perfect harmony to hit. And each evening, I did not write down the sentences taking form in my mind, and they slipped off into the oblivion of unchanneled creativity

The creativity of God is so potent that his thoughts immediately take on created form. Humans have to do a bit more work than that. Without taking the physical effort to convey our thoughts, in speech, in words, in images, we lose them. Even the intuitions that are a gift from God take a physical effort to be conveyed as a gift to others.
It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together: 
was die Welt
Im innersten zusammenhält. 
only for a moment, perhaps, and the lightning vision of his intuition has to be recaptured and rediscovered in hard work.
So says Josef Pieper in "Leisure the Basis of Culture", which, appropriately enough, was vacation reading for Darwin, and, now, for me. Pieper describes the opposite of leisure not as work but as acedia, or my old nemesis sloth. 
No, the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one's living; it is man's happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God -- which is to say love. Love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical 'worker'. 
Who would guess, unless he were expressly told so, that Aquinas regarded acedia as a sin against the third commandment? He was in fact so far from considering idleness as the opposite of the ethos of work that he simply interprets it as an offence against the commandment in which we are called upon to have 'the peace of the mind in God'.

I have had difficulty in being objective about myself and my motivation since we arrived home, because after the clarity of the fresh mountain air, my head been repollenated by Ohio's muggy atmosphere. I am tired and heavy, and everything seems hard, and I feel unvirtuous because I don't feel like doing the hard work. Isn't virtue found in doing what is difficult? But Pieper has something to say about that too, again by way of Aquinas:

In Kant's view, indeed, the fact that man's natural bent is contrary to the moral law, belongs to the concept of moral law. It is normal and essential, on this view, that the good should be difficult, and that the effort of will required in forcing oneself to perform some action should become the yardstick of the moral good: the more difficult a thing, the higher it is in the order of goodness. 
'Hard work is what is good' -- but in the Summa Theologica we find St. Thomas maintaining the diametrically opposite opinion: 'The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.' 'Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious; it must be more difficult in such a way that it is at the same time good in a yet higher way.' The Middle Ages also said something about virtue that is no longer so readily understood -- least of all by Kant's compatriots and disciples -- they held that virtue meant: 'mastering our natural bent'. No; that is what Kant would have said, and we all of us find it quite easy to understand; what Aquinas says is that virtue make us perfect by enabling us to follow our natural bend in the right way. The highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness -- because it springs from love.  
The tendency to overvalue hard work and the effort of doing something difficult is so deep-rooted that it even infects our notion of love. Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one's enemy as the most exalted form of love? Principally because it offers an example of a natural bend heroically curbed; the exceptional difficulty, the impossibility one might almost say, of loving one's enemy constitutes the greatness of the love. And what does Aquinas say? 'It is not the difficulty of loving one's enemy that matters when the essence of the merit of doing so is concerned, excepting in so far as the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty. And therefore, if love were to be so perfect that the difficulty vanished altogether -- it would be more meritorious still.' 
And in the same way, the essence of thought does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of 'difficulty', so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift -- the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble. On one occasion St. Thomas speaks of contemplation and play in the same breath; 'because of the leisure that goes with contemplation' the divine wisdom itself, Holy Scripture says, is 'always at play, playing through the whole world' (Proverbs viii, 30 f.)
First comes contemplation, and after that the hard work. The work without the contemplation is idle activity which exhausts mentally and spiritually as well as physically. 


I'm going on retreat this weekend. It seems strange to leave the family and go off by myself for 24 hours not a week after we've returned from vacation, but that's how the scheduling went. And perhaps it's no mistake. I rested myself physically and mentally on vacation, but I didn't contemplate. I didn't use my free time as leisure, for contemplation. Let me tell you about the day I had four books going from the rather random collection at the vacation house, and I didn't find any of them enjoyable. That's turning leisure time to a very poor account. That's the definition of idleness. 

This weekend I'm going to confession and adoration, and I'm going to have silent time for contemplation. I'm taking Pieper because he's functioning as spiritual reading for me. I'm taking my Bible, in which I'm currently reading through the liturgical requirements in Exodus. I'm taking my rosary because praying it is spiritual exercise for me: onerous at the time, but consistently annoying fruitful. And I'm taking a notebook and a pen, so that, through work, the "lightning vision" of my contemplation can mirror the created form of divine though.

Let me know if I can pray for anything specific for you.

After the hard work of climbing Old Rag.


Rob said...

We almost trekked out to Old Rag earlier in the week. Would have been hilarious if we'd met up there.

Enjoy your rest! Pieper makes great spiritual reading.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I have similar problems with acedia, so I hope you will pray for me. I'll be praying for you in your retreat.