Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 5

My favorite quote from this chapter, called “The Field of Work”:

“We are not much, but we are part of a whole and we have the honor of being a part.” (121)

And this is a very specific estimate of how long it would take to study theology that caught my interest:

“If you devote four hours a week to it for the five or six years needed to form the mind, that will be quite enough; afterwards you will only have to keep up what you know.

But beware above everything else of trusting false teachers. Go straight to Thomas of Acquin. Study the Summa…” (111)

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)

Goodnight!

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.

Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 3

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“One word suggests itself here before any other: you must simplify your life.“  (41)

I’ve been trying to simplify my life for twenty years!  And I’ve been lingering over this chapter for about six weeks.  It has so many encouraging quotes to ponder, many of which confirm ideas I’ve held for some time now, and others that are completely new to me.  Here are some of the quotes I underlined on simplification.

“a certain asceticism is the duty of the thinker.” (42)

“Contemplation… is not compatible with the complications and burdens of an excessively comfortable life.” (42)

“Much peace, a little beauty, certain conveniences that save time, are all that is necessary.” (42)

“…how will you preserve the few hours at your disposal if your life is over-full?  You must reduce matter to the minimum, so as to lighten and liberate the spirit.” (43)

“Money and attention squandered on trifles would be much better spent in collecting a library, providing for instructive travel or restful holidays, going to hear music which rekindles inspiration, and so on.” (43)

Around the time I began reading this chapter, I discovered a podcast by Dr. Christopher Perrin called Café Scholé.  I immediately listened to every episode.  Dr. Perrin defines scholé as “undistracted time to study the things that are most worthwhile.” This is something I’ve been craving, not only for myself, but also for my children.

I have had a strong desire to simplify my life because I believe it will give me the time for scholé, and in this chapter, A. G. Sertillanges confirms this. To have this time to study, you must simplify your life.  But what does this look like?

Well, for me, it started out as decluttering.  I thought paring down material possessions would make life simpler.  And it does help.  As I shared in my last post, good habits of tidying and doing chores help too.  Doing fewer activities can simplify life, but I think to be really simple,  my mind needs to put first things first.   Most important, in my opinion, is that I make time for solitude.

In Order and Solitude (Episode 8 of the podcast), Dr. Perrin does a fine job in summarizing and going deeper into the ideas in Part II of this chapter, which is called Solitude. I’ve been listening to it when I’m alone in my van and it makes so much sense to me.  I’ve been pondering these ideas for years.  Why is it that I feel scattered after spending a period of time being constantly busy? Or drained when I’ve been trying to be a good wife, mother, daughter, or friend by listening to other people talk? Or distracted by too much time spent on movies, streaming shows, and social media?  It’s a lack of solitude.

Here’s a question:  Why, having known for almost half my life, that this silence is the one thing necessary for me, do I seem to avoid it or allow other things to take it away?

I think the answer is that (although I’ve told myself I do) I haven’t always wanted to know the truth. The truth can be painful.  It can be humbling. Being busy and productive is much less scary, and it keeps up the illusion that I am greater than I really am. I’m at a time in my life now where I feel ready to face the truth.  I want to learn. (It’s why I’m reading this book.)  Here’s a quote that gives me hope and inspires me to face the truth and to persevere.

“One cannot, says St. Thomas, contemplate all the time; but he who lives only for contemplation, directs everything else towards it, and resumes it when he can, gives it a sort of continuity, as far as may be on earth.

Delight will be found in it, for ‘the cell, if you stay in it, grows sweet: cella continuata dulcescit.’  Now the delight of contemplation is a part of its efficacy.  Pleasure, St. Thomas explains, fastens the soul to its object, like a vise..”  (51-52)

My interpretation is that if I keep seeking this silence/solitude/prayer as often as I can, and I make it a priority, I will begin to enjoy it so much that its frequency will naturally increase.

That last line about pleasure fastening the soul to its object like a vise sounds powerful to me.  It inspires me to want to fast.  It makes me want to break the grip of the vise holding unworthy objects to my soul.  Objects like food, excessive entertainment, media, or even work, that allow me

“to half live while time runs by, and to sell heaven for nothings.”  (50)

As in the last chapter, this one also contains many practical tips which I’ll share here in a bulleted list.

  • Do not burden yourself with too much baggage. (41)
  • Slacken the tempo of your life. (42)
  • Do not inquire at all about the actions of others. (46)
  • Do not busy yourself about the words and actions of those in the world. (46)
  • Avoid useless outings above everything. (46)
  • Be slow to speak and slow to go to those places where people speak… (47)
  • Do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose… (47)
  • Do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world… (47)
  • Avoid useless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thoughts. (47)
  • Before giving out truth, acquire it for yourself…  (52)
  • Do what you ought and must… (58)
  • Do not forget that in association with others, even in ordinary everyday meetings, there is something to be gleaned.  (59)
  • Find the right balance between the life within and the life without, between silence and sound. (62)
  • You as a man of thought must keep in touch with what is; else the mind loses its poise. (64)
  • The spirit of silence must therefore pervade the whole of life.  (67)

Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 2

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Chapter 2 is all about virtues and their connection to knowledge.  I’m going to use the information in the fourth part of the chapter, which is about disciplining our bodies.  Since I consistently struggle with consistency in bodily discipline, I thought I’d take some of the author’s suggestions to make a list for my own benefit.

PRACTICAL TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR BODY IN GREAT SHAPE FOR THINKING

  1. Go outside! Live as much as possible in the open air. (37)
  2. Take walks every day. Walk before you study, after you study, and even while you are studying. (37)
  3. Breathe deeply.  Keep windows open, when possible.  Sit in a position that frees your lungs and doesn’t compress your other organs.  Take slow and deep breaths.  Try doing it while standing on tiptoes. (37)
  4. Stretch.  Reach your limbs in two or three rhythmic movements or movements that amplify your deep breathing exercises. (37)
  5. Exercise every day. “Those who do not find time to take exercise must find time to be ill.” If you cannot exercise outside, then do it inside.  It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise, as long as you do it! (37-38)
  6. Take vacations. At least once a year.  Maybe more.  This doesn’t mean you can’t do any work during them, but you should mostly rest, get fresh air, and exercise out-of-doors. (38)
  7. Watch what you eat. Stick with light food that is plain and simply cooked.  Do not overeat!  “A thinker does not spend his life in the processes of digestion.” (38)
  8. Get enough sleep.  This is very important. Both too much or too little can negatively affect you. Find out how much you need and make a firm resolution to keep it. (38)
  9. Have good hygiene. Wash, brush, floss, wear dry, clean clothes.
  10. Pay attention to your passions and vices. Are you overdoing anything?  Have you noticed behaviors that dull your mind? Or make you tired or anxious?  Are you doing them excessively?  Do you have habits that you know are not good for you?  “A lover of pleasure is an enemy of his body and therefore quickly becomes an enemy of his soul.  Mortification of the senses is necessary for thought, and can alone bring us to that state of clear vision…” (39)  Try fasting or abstinence.  Limit screen time. Stay away from Twizzlers.

Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 1

D7D291B9-7B7C-4F9D-BB1D-A5C0B1DE50F8I created a new category called “Book Notes” where I’ll post my thoughts on books I’m reading, as I said I would do in my last post.  I also created a tag for the name of the book. I think that will allow one to call up all posts about that particular book. My first notes in this new category will be about The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by A. G. Sertillanges, O.P.  I think this is a great way to begin methodically reading my nonfiction books… by studying a classic book that teaches how to learn!

I don’t plan to summarize each chapter.  Maybe someone else has done that online.  I’ll just write about whatever I find interesting and would have written about by hand in a journal as I do sometimes. This category will be my electronic commonplace book.

“Christianized humanity is made up of various personalities, no one of which can refuse to function without impoverishing the group and without depriving the eternal Christ of a part of His kingdom. Christ reigns by unfolding Himself in men.  Every life of one of His members is a characteristic moment of His duration; every individual man and Christian is an instance, incommunicable, unique, and therefore necessary, of the extension of the ‘spiritual body.’  If you are designated as a light bearer, do not go and hide under the bushel the gleam or the flame expected from you in the house of the Father of all.”  (5)

What excited me about this passage is that it reminded me of something I heard at my Spiritual Exercises retreat last September.  I heard it during the Call of Christ meditation talk and it was something that I had never thought of before.  It was a new motivation.

Jesus is calling me to follow him, like a soldier following a good king into battle.  And it’s a battle that we are sure to win.  It’s a guaranteed victory.  There may be some suffering involved, but the king will be right there suffering with us too.  How am I going to respond? I know I should be generous.  I should have courage.  I should go above and beyond if I want to distinguish myself.  I should be committed.  But here’s what I didn’t ever think about before:  I should have a sense of responsibility.  I am necessary.  Essential.  God depends on me to bring the fire of His love to those around me.  My surrender will bring a unique benefit to the world.  I will leave a black hole in the universe if I do not offer myself as He expects. To me, this means my response is more than an expression of love and gratitude.  It’s my duty.  (And it took my ISTJ breath away.)

So I saw this idea repeated in the passage above, but in this case it’s referring to the vocation of intellectual work.  Or the hobby, for people like me who already have a full-time vocation.  I do think I am called to develop and deepen my mind (as a supplement to my regular work) because I do really enjoy reading and thinking about ideas and it seems to go along with the disposition God has given me.  My interpretation of the passage above is that the calling (whether part-time or full-time) is more than just an interest you may have, it’s something you should be doing. And not half-way, but give it your all!

So that’s one takeaway from the chapter. There are many others, but it’s time for me to cook dinner.