Contemplation for a Day Off

In our culture of relentless competition and constant work, we can sometimes loose the sense of contemplation. The need to excel, to be the best, to accomplish more every day can sometimes cause us anxiety and a sense of bewilderment even in the midst of success. What is important for the human soul is to take time to switch from one way of being to another, back and forth from discursive to contemplative thought.

In the book “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, Josef Pieper says,

“The Middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus,on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both these in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which is sees”. Josef Pieper, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, English translation by Alexander Dru, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009) 28.

Pieper goes on to say how in the Middle Ages, ratio was held to be a human experience whereas intellectus was considered beyond human, touching the spiritual. If we find ourselves rushing even when we have not much to do, feeling anxious, then it could be time to rest and take in rather than give out, to experience beauty around us rather than try to own and control it. This takes a renunciation of ego, a letting go of the familiar, and an acceptance of the unknown, the mysterious.

Does this happen to you? I like to listen to the classical station while driving around in the car & often catch myself “working” and analyzing the music. I’ll start off by guessing who the composer is, what genre and period of history it comes from, how well the musicians are performing, wether or not they’re playing in as historically informed way, whether or not I could perform the piece and what it would take to learn it. Then I often start thinking of current projects that need to get done.This probably happens all the time to people in other fields as well. We go along unconsciously analyzing minute details. The suddenly something so beautiful bursts in and demands our attention and awe. Being aware of the different ways of thinking can allow us to switch from one to the other and so be able to see beauty in its more subtle manifestations. Discursive thinking is important, for it helps us to get down to the technical aspects of things and allows us to make things work and to make progress, but our thinking process should not be strictly analytical. We should also allow ourselves to experience of the beautiful essence of creation that is all around us, a beauty that is just out of reach of the analytical mind. To enter into the spirit of true art, to allow the beauty of creation to permeate our being, to accept the goodness around us, this is what our souls long for. We should have time each day for this.


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