Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Wrap Up

I finished reading this book three weeks ago. I really want to dive right into The Discernment of Spirits, but I’m making myself write a final post to fulfill my “duty of bringing to completion” (227) what I started. Part IV of Chapter 8 is titled Doing Things Well and Finishing Everything. OK, A.G., I’ll take your advice. I’ll be constant, patient, and I will persevere. I would not want this unfinished work to “be a reproach” to me. (229)

“I see a cause of moral decadence in abandoning a project or an undertaking. One grows used to giving-up; one resigns oneself to disorder, to an uncomfortable conscience; one gets a habit of shilly-shallying. Thence comes a loss of dignity that can have no favorable effect on one’s progress.”

(229)

Sounds serious. Shilly-shally is my new favorite word. Shilly-shallying is why I want to learn how to practice the discernment of spirits. It means:

  1. : to show hesitation or lack of decisiveness or resolution
  2. : DAWDLE

I do this frequently. I am unsure. How does God want me to spend the time I have been given? More questions arose when I read this part of the book. Do I finish what I start? Do I reflect (count the cost) before starting on a piece of work? (228) A quick list eased my mind. I usually complete projects I start. I also have many commitments that have been ongoing for years, and although they don’t end, I have not given up on them. What I often neglect are books, home studies, and writing, the very things for which The Intellectual Life offers help. The end of Chapter 8 sums up what conditions are needed for success in work: to reflect at the start, to begin at the beginning, to proceed methodically, to advance slowly, to give out all one’s strength. (233)

So now I have come to the final chapter, for which I hand wrote four pages of quotes and notes while my four daughters were getting haircuts at a local salon. To limit the length of this post, I’m going to focus on just two ideas. I’ll call them: living and resting.

LIVING (Chapter 9, I. Keeping Contact With Life)

Living in society requires us to take part in many practical activities. (For me, it’s picking Rachel up from school and dropping her off at tennis practice, folding clothes, visiting my mother, painting a bathroom, taking kids shopping for bathing suits, going for a bike ride, etc.)

“It is hard to settle on exactly the measure of all these things.”

(236)

The author seems to understand the uncertainty I mentioned earlier of how to spend my time, but he says he has confidence that I will be able to decide, and that I’ll appreciate the relative value of things. (236) He addresses a concern that the intellectual will get so into his work that he’ll neglect the practical activities, or he’ll turn his back on the worthwhile things of life. Think scholé! I have an opposite concern. I may overdo the practical activities, neglect my intellectual or spiritual life, and also turn my back on scholé. Sertillanges advises: “Give up nothing of what belongs to man. Preserve a balance…” (241)

The beauty of this section inspires me. I see his message in other places, but the way he writes it makes me long for it.

“Nature renews everything, refreshes every well-formed mind, opens up new vistas and suggests surveys that abstract thinking knows nothing of. The tree is a teacher; the field teems with ideas as with anemones or daisies; the clouds and stars in the revolving sky bring fresh inspiration; the mountains steady our thoughts with their mass; and the course of the running streams starts the mind on lofty meditations…

Yet you let your mind get cramped and your heart grow dry, and you imagine that it is loss of time to follow the course of the torrents or to wander among the stars. The universe fills man with its glory, and you do not know it. The star of evening set against the darkening sky is lonely, it wants a place in your thought, and you refuse to admit it. You write, you compute, you string propositions together, you elaborate your theses, [you stare at your iphone] and you do not look.”

(238-239)

“Music has this precious quality for the intellectual that as it conveys no precise ideas, it interferes with none. It awakens states of soul, from which each one in his particular task will draw what he wills.”

(239)

He speaks of the connections between thought and the manifestations of creative power. (238) And the manifestations (a sunset, a visit to the Louvre, an evening at the symphony, a walk about Versailles under the autumn trees, and so on…) are dreamy. Homeschoolers may have heard of the British educator Charlotte Mason’s “Education is the science of relations.” Or her other famous motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” This came to mind when I read this quote:

“One is a poor thing all by oneself in one’s study! It is true one can bring the universe into it and people it with God; but that divine inhabitation is effective only after long experience, of which the elements are everywhere about us. Should I write under the impression of nature and of universal beauty, if great scenery, the peaceful countryside, the vision of the achievements of art, had not previously educated me?”

(240)

What a great reminder to me, that atmosphere is important not only for a parent to provide for her homeschooled child, but for anyone, for life… We are all born persons. It also reminded me of the idea of an integrated curriculum. And how you can separate subjects into time slots in your day, but they will always overlap. They are all parts of one big story. Let’s allow no compartments! (241)

And speaking of being born persons… Theology of the Body came to mind when I read this next quote:

“Refuse to be a brain detached from its body, and a human being who has cut out his soul.”

(241)

Lastly, I shall paraphase a description of Sertillanges’ intellectual – to envision for myself: She has varied knowledge that goes well with her special studies. She loves the arts and natural beauty; her mind is one in everyday activities and in meditation. She is the same woman in the presence of God, with her family, and with acquaintances. She has a world of ideas and feelings that she writes about, shares in conversations with others, and by which she lives. (241)

RESTING (Chapter 9, II. Knowing How to Relax)

“Nothing must be in excess. Work, precisely because it is a duty, requires limits which maintain it in full vigor, make it lasting, and enable it to yield in the course of life the greatest total effect of which it is capable.”

(242)

That’s what I always say.

I like to relax; so reading arguments on why it’s necessary, makes my logical heart flutter. Let it be known that:

“Relaxation is a duty… to refuse to rest is implicitly to refuse an effort that rest would render possible.”

(243)

“When one does not make room for rest, the rest one does not take takes itself: it steals into the work, under the form of distractions, of sleepiness, of necessary things that demand attention, not having been foreseen at the right time.

… If I omitted these preparations because of some nominal work, some inferior occupation that I was bent on through lack of self-control, there is a double disaster; I arrive at this result: no real rest, no real work. Disorder reigns.”

(245-246)

The rest of this section goes on to describe true rest,

“St. Thomas explains that the true rest of the soul is joy, some activity in which we delight. Games, familiar conversation, friendship, family life, pleasant reading such as we have spoken of, communion with nature, some art accessible to us, some not tiring manual work, an intelligent stroll about town, theatrical performances that are not too exacting or too exciting, sport in moderation; these are our means of relaxation.”

(246)

how we must have a proper balance between work and rest,

“To work too long is to get worn-out; to stop too soon is to fail in giving one’s measure. In the same way, to rest too long is to destroy the momentum acquired; to rest too little is to fail in renewing one’s strength.”

(246)

and he gives another plug for being in nature.

“Ah, if one could work in the heart of nature, one’s window open on a fair landscape, so placed that when one was tired one could enjoy a few minutes in the green country; or, if one’s thought was at a standstill ask a suggestion from the mountains, from the company of trees and clouds, from the passing animals, instead of painfully enduring one’s dull mood -I am sure that the work produced would be doubled, and that it would be far more attractive, far more human.”

(247)

IN CONCLUSION

The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., has given me conviction and clarity. I see how necessary it is for me to make time for scholé in my life. Scrolling through the Table of Contents (or past posts) reminds me of the methods suggested, and I feel so inspired. A confidence rises up inside me. I can do this! Clearly, I will just: feel a sense of duty, discipline my body, simplify my life, make solitude a priority, limit and be choosy about my reading, quiet my evenings, be focused and methodical, be sure what I start is worthwhile, finish what I start, and produce results! Woo Hoo!

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