Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 4

I’m spending about six weeks on each chapter of this book.  There is so much to think about! I reread this one many times, including once last week at the beach, on vacation.  I wondered what to focus on in this post. I certainly cannot quote everything I’ve underlined.

First of all, can this be true?  I’ve never tried this.  Here is what is written about the prayer called Prime (and also Compline):

“… there are no prayers more beautiful, more efficacious, more inspiring. The majority of liturgical prayers are masterpieces; but these are full and sweet like the rising and setting of a star. Try: you will never be able to say any other prayers. All true life is in them, all nature, and to prepare your work with them is like going out on a journey through a wide-open door flooded with sunshine.” (89)

You will never be able to say any other prayers?  Baby say whaaat?!  I’ve got to try these!

Chapter 4 is called “The Time of Work” and it includes detailed sections for the continuity of work, the work of night, mornings and evenings, and the moments of plenitude. Each section is full of beautiful ideas and practical advice. (The morning one inspired me to write a morning prayer!)  But the evening is the section that had me questioning my current practices, and thinking that some changes may be helpful.

“Evening! how little, usually, people know about making it holy and quiet, about using it to prepare for really restorative sleep!” (91)

I’ll admit it. My evenings are far from holy and quiet.  Just while writing this, I stopped to help someone with her homework, to tell people (again) to turn out the light and go to sleep, and to teach someone how to put away the iron and the ironing board.  Many of my evenings are spent on the couch, next to my husband, watching a movie and eating unhealthy snacks. Then, tiredly crawling into bed after quick prayers, and staying up too late scrolling on our phones.  And before Covid 19, I was often out of the house in the evening.

“When the evening comes, they lay down the reins and throw off thought, giving their minds up to the dissipation which is supposed to refresh them, dining, smoking, playing cards, talking noisily, frequenting the theatres, or the music halls, gaping at the cinema, and going to bed with minds ‘relaxed.’

Yes, indeed, relaxed; but like a violin with all its strings completely slackened. What a labor next day to tune them all up again!” (91)

Do you know what dissipation means? It’s defined as the squandering of money, energy or resources. I found the slackened violin strings to be a good description of how I feel many mornings when I roll out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom.  The author describes a different scenario for the intellectual, which may not be entirely possible for a wife and mother, but maybe sometimes.

“… evening should be a time of stillness, his supper a light refection, his play the simple task of setting the day’s work in order and preparing the morrow’s.” (92)

I can imagine how using the evening to prepare for the next day would make life simpler. I have often said when I enter my kitchen in the morning, “It looks like we had a party last night.” But besides having a tidier home, it would be lovely to begin the next day physically and spiritually refreshed.

“In spite of the passionate and self-interested illusion of those who maintain that a part of man must be set aside for the life of pleasure, dissipation is not rest, it is exhaustion.  Rest cannot be found in scattering one’s energies.  Rest means giving up all effort and withdrawing towards the fount of life;  it means restoring our strength, not expending it foolishly.”  (92) 

He admits that there is a time for recreation, but that it’s not the normal function of the evening.  The evening is for resting in God, through prayer, and for resting our bodies, which leads up to a more complete rest that we’ll get at night.  It’s when we should follow routines and do things out of habit.

“…it is a restoration of organic life and of holy life in us by easing off happily, by prayer, silence, and sleep.” (93)


I’m not really going to end there. I want to leave myself some tips from Section IV, for the times when I am actually going to work on some heavy duty studying.

  1. Be prepared.  Know what you want to do and how you want to do it.  Gather your materials. (notes, books, supplies)  Avoid having to interrupt your work to find things. (95)
  2. Set the time aside.  Start promptly.  Eat lightly beforehand. Avoid pointless conversation or calls.  Limit texting to what is strictly necessary.  Stay off social media and news sites!  (95)
  3. Avoid half-work more than anything.  Do not imitate those people who sit long at their desks but let their minds wander.  It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely, to increase its value which is all that counts…  Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with all your might…  Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work. (96)
  4. Invite inspiration.  Renew the “spirit of prayer.”  (96)
  5. Keep a Cerebus at your door.  That one is just to make you smile.

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