All posts tagged: contemplation

Embrace Negativity or Risk Never Being Happy

Today I opened my inbox to an exciting offer from an American mega-corporation. The body of this digital communique announced its magical power loud and clear: “Making Your Inbox Happy.” The content of this happiness? I might be able to save up to 25% on future furniture purchases from their online store. My joy—or more correctly the joy of my digital inbox—is supposed to be savings offered by a corporate behemoth, rewarding me for a recent purchase of off-gray sheets for a twin-size bed. Happiness is not even a click away; it is already here. Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that such an offer of happiness is depression in disguise. He ties our constant and overriding desire for positivity to our increased instances of ADHD and our ever-increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression. In 2015’s The Burnout Society, Han writes that “The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates, it does not exclude, it exhausts.” (7). Everything tells us to enjoy, to just keep looking on the bright side. If we keep believing, if …

Modernity’s Marginalization of Philosophy Makes the Practice of Everyday Life Unintelligible

We are sitting with friends at a diner or standing in line to buy tickets for a movie, chatting idly, when suddenly one of us, unable to contain himself in the face of our trivialities, bursts out with some existential question which we might later on paraphrase in polite terms as “What is it to live a human life well or badly?” or one which we might paraphrase as “What law, if any, has authority over us?” . . . And the response by those who hear both the questions and the emotions expressed through them is likely to be deep embarrassment, a strong wish to change the subject, a will to behave as if the questions had not been asked. We think: what can have got into him to talk like that? Is he perhaps having a break-down?[1] Commentators have often failed to realize the extent to which University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre breaks with Aristotle concerning the superiority of the vita contemplative vis-à-vis the vita activa. In his Politics (8.3), Aristotle famously said that “the first principle of …

Cultivating Benedictine Wonder

I awake in the middle of the night, as I do most nights here, with muscles complaining about the hundreds of hay bales I loaded into a barn the day before. It is half past 2AM. The Guest House at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is black and silent, but some 800 meters away in the chapel, an assembly of nuns is awake and keeping watch with the sanctuary lamp. It is the hour of Matins. By the time I rise at 8:00, the flowers have been watered, the cows milked, the sheep sent to pasture, the cat found and fed, the grapevines inspected, and the bread dough set out to rise. I gulp a cup of Folgers and hike up the hill to the Church of Jesu Fili Mariae for Mass. A bell rings, and from behind the wrought iron grille, the nuns process into the sanctuary, bowing to the altar and to one another before taking their places in the choir stalls. Mother Abbess intones the prayer: Deus, in adjutorium meum intende. The …

Ora et Labora: Christians Don’t Need Leisure

We Christians, no less than other human creatures, are interested in ourselves. Deformed versions of this interest are narcissistic: under that rubric, we think of ourselves as if we were intrinsically valuable and important and good, and then we forget that whatever value, importance, and goodness we have has been given to us by the triune LORD whom we worship. That gift denies us anything of our own. Less deformed versions of our concern with ourselves begin and end with the thought that we are creatures, brought into being out of nothing by our LORD for purposes scarcely apparent to us. Thinking about ourselves in this way has the double good of requiring us to think about our LORD, and of deflating our pretensions. It is not easy to think like that, however; narcissism was not abolished by Jesus, even if its eventual overcoming is assured, and a good deal of Christian theological anthropology, professional-hectoring and popular-sentimental both, shows narcissism’s deleterious effects. We Christians remain disposed to concern about how the world seems to us …

Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation

“Avita contemplativa without acting is blind, a vita activa without contemplation is empty,” writes the rising star of the German philosophical scene in his book The Scent of Time. Byung-Chul Han draws a nuanced account of “lingering with God in loving attentiveness” as a spur to action from the writings of Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. He then defends the mystical tradition from his own spiritual master, Martin Heidegger.[1] The late Heidegger began to turn his philosophical attention to the path of contemplation, but it is at the heart of Han’s project from the start. He shows us how contemplation creates the time and space for meaningful action in a breathless, frantic, and networked modern society. Han’s next book, The Burnout Society, was a smash hit in Germany and his native South Korea that will soon be translated into 13 other languages. Unexpectedly, a meditation on the importance of contemplation, including prayerful contemplation, now animates debates about the future of the global Left,[2] the legacy of Foucault, and the direction of contemporary …

Work: A Four-Letter Word?

There is a certain ambiguity in Scripture about the meaning and value of labor, and I am aware of no clear and positive statement on the subject by the Church. Rerum novarum and Quadragesima anno just don’t really approach the subject, and especially not from a more modern scriptural viewpoint. What I have to suggest on this topic hardly constitutes an exhaustive treatment of what the idea of work might be for a Catholic, but I do think it might open up some avenues for thought. Genesis has God laboring for six days and then resting (Gen 2:1–4), although this does not seem to mean that labor is tiring even for God; it seems rather to show him as a model for our freedom on the Sabbath day, a gift God gives us by his example. Genesis 3:17–19, on the other hand, takes the position that labor is indeed a curse, at least in the way that Adam and Eve would have to do it after the Fall. Job takes a very negative view of …

Josef Pieper’s Critique of Western Civ

On February 1, 1950, just in time for Commencement Day, the eminent German philosopher Josef Pieper arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus. It was his first visit to the U.S., having finally been recruited by Waldemar Gurian (founder of the University’s notable Review of Politics) to teach for the spring semester. The speaker for the day’s ceremony, as Pieper notes in the recently published second volume of his memoirs, Not Yet the Twilight, was the young Congressman John F. Kennedy, whom he thought somewhat resembled Charles Lindbergh. In fact, two years before, Gurian had asked a Notre Dame colleague travelling in Germany to meet briefly with Pieper in hopes of encouraging him to come to South Bend. He got a message back saying “Nice man but doesn’t speak English.” Two years later, Pieper was successfully—if sometimes haltingly—lecturing to his American students in English. Before his arrival, however, Pieper had been cautioned by Gurian: “Theology, above all, is missing at this University; there is hardly any real philosophizing, and there is nothing of the …

Abstraction, Contemplation, and the Architectural Imagination

The Question: “The Story at the Heart of Faith: Can abstraction call the person into the fullness of humanity?” The Working Definitions: Contemplation/Contemplative Imagination: The total imagination involving all of our faculties: thinking, feeling, remembering, hoping, believing, perceiving, abstracting, conceiving and interpreting. It is the conditional ground for our reception of reality, and hence truth, thereby leading us into the fullness of our humanity. Analogical: Proceeding according to a proper proportion or measure. It is the principle of unity in difference between the part and the whole, the particular and the universal, essentia and esse, becoming and being, the finite and the infinite, where the contraries are so integrated and mutually dependent and informing that to preference one to the expense of the other is to distort the way we contemplate, create, and live in the world. The Response: The titular question as it relates to architecture, specifically sacred architecture, possesses a rather enigmatic character because architecture is an essentially “abstract” art, at least in any strict use or “icon”ic sense of the term. In …

Catechetical Spirituality: Sharing the Fruit of Contemplation

When we think of our title as catechists, we usually only consider it to be the name of the volunteer work that we do one or two nights a week at our parish. The rest of the week, we live out our vocations in our married lives, families, careers, and hobbies. However, what would it take for us to see ourselves as being called to be catechists? That, as lay catechetical ministers, our volunteer work with children and adults at our parish is also a vocation? Even though our main ministry as catechists may take place only once or twice a week, the call to be a catechist is something we are challenged to live out every single day of our life, even when we are not in a classroom with our students. Pope Francis echoes this important sentiment in his address to catechists in 2013: Catechesis is a vocation: ‘being’ a catechist, this is the vocation, not ‘working’ as a catechist. Be careful: I have not said to do the work of a catechist, …