Bonhoeffer on the Interplay of Mystery and Joy

In the latter part of his biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh carefully works through Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. The prison letters have come to be seen as some of Bonhoeffer most important and challenging theological work, and in this post I’d like to reflect on two recurring themes from those letters, namely the themes of hilaritas and arcnaum. Hilaritas is Christian joy that embraces the this-worldliness experience of life and Being, while arcanum is the unfathomable mystery of God as God. I’d like to suggest that these two themes are deeply entwined, that the proper response to mystery is in fact joy, that the recognition of arcanum is not a throwing up of the arms in the face of mystery but a joyful embrace of life as life and God as God.

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on these themes speak to his understanding of the vocation of theology. In a purely academic setting there might be no place for mystery at all, expect perhaps to solve it or to dispel it. But this is not how Bonhoeffer ever saw his own theological vocation, and especially not in prison at the end of his life. As Marsh writes: “It was a great mistake, Bonhoeffer said, to think of theology’s purpose as being the unveiling of mystery, ‘to bring down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of experience and reason!’ Theology should rather, as its sole mission aim to ‘preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to define, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery,’ ‘In the arcanum,’ he said, ‘Christ takes everyone who really encounters him by the shoulder, turning them around to face their fellow human beings and the world.’ Theology’s task was to preserve the eternal mystery in a catastrophically demystified time.” (from Strange Glory)

And it is precisely at this point that joy enters the conversation because the preservation of mystery is not a dour task, but a deeply joyful invitation into the life of God and into the world itself. Bonhoeffer sums this theme up as hilaritas. Bonhoeffer’s initial reflections on hilaritas emerged from his reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II.2 in prison. In that volume, Marsh notes, “Bonhoeffer discovered the value of hilaritas—good humor—as the quality of mind, body, and spirit most important to animating the greatest human achievements.” But it was more than this too. Hilaritas is also a joyful resistance to the nihilism Bonhoeffer saw around him. It is a refusal to accept the construal of the world as nothing more than power, an absolute determination to not surrender. But it is more than a No; it is first a Yes. As Marsh writes, “hilaritas is “saying the Yes and the Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing” (366).

Thinking of the interplay of mystery and joy, I’m struck that the book of Ephesians is both the most extended meditation on the mystery of God as revealed in the gospel and the most breathlessly doxological book epistle in the New Testament.

Joyful doxology is the proper response to mystery. If mystery becomes simply something to be solved, then two possible dangers emerge, one being a throwing up of the hands and the other being the temptation to move on once the mystery is “solved”. Balthasar expounds on this second danger, writing, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should always become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Does theology have anything to do with holiness?

In this post and in the next few posts, I want to explore some of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflections on the relationship between theology and spirituality, or what he tends to call the relationship between theology and sanctity, what we might now call the relationship between theology and holiness.

Now these two words, theology and holiness, might seem a curious pairing to us, and this is precisely the issue Balthasar hopes to address. Theology/holiness, contemplation/action, believing/living—we tend to see these more as dichotomies and dilemmas rather than as dynamically related and mutually informing realties. But the two absolutely belong together, and the fact that they aren’t seen as belonging together is for Balthasar a story of decline and a story of divorce. Their separation is therefore grievous and unnatural. To illustrate Balthasar offers this striking image in the essay “Theology and Sanctity”, saying that theology without sanctity is “bones without flesh” and that sanctity (spirituality) without theology is “flesh without bones”.

Taking this image of the body, we might say that what results from the separation of theology and sanctity is a kind of formlessness, something incomplete and not wholly itself. As he concludes, “Only the two together (corresponding to the prototype of revelation in scripture) constitute the unique ‘form’ capable of being ‘seen’ in the light of faith by the believer, a unique testimony, invisible to the world, and a ‘scandal’ to it.”

Thinking of scripture as offering the prototype, I was put in mind first of Paul, and the way the opening prayers in his epistles are so often road maps to his theological reflections, and the ways, like in Romans 8, that his theological reflections are transposed into prayer and doxology.

I was also put in mind of Augustine and how so much of his work is either actually prayer or is suffused, surrounded by, steeped in, prayer. The Confessions are of course a famous example of this, but you can see it throughout his work. Here is a portion of a prayer from the end of The Trinity that nicely captures Augustine’s deep desire not simply to understand something, or to explain something, but rather to see and be transformed by what he has sought to understand:

“Do Thou give strength to seek, who has made me find You, and has given the hope of finding You more and more. My strength and my infirmity are in Your sight: preserve the one, and heal the other. My knowledge and my ignorance are in Your sight; where You have opened to me, receive me as I enter; where You have closed, open to me as I knock. May I remember You, understand You, love You. Increase these things in me, until You renew me wholly. “

The Trinity, XV.28, taken from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130115.htm

As another example, I think of Anselm who calls his work the Monologium “an example of meditation on the grounds of faith.” In other words, to use a more famous phrase of his, he is engaged in “faith seeking understanding”, and this prayer from the Prosologium illustrates how central prayer is to that larger quest of knowing God:

“I pray, 0 God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full. Let the knowledge of you advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of you increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth. Lord, through your Son you do command, nay, you do counsel us to ask; and you do promise that we shall receive, that our joy may be full. I ask, O Lord, as you do counsel through our wonderful Counsellor. I will receive what you do promise by virtue of your truth, that my joy may be full. Faithful God, I ask. I will receive, that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, let my mind meditate upon it; let my tongue speak of it. Let my heart love it; let my mouth talk of it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; let my whole being desire it, until I enter into your joy, O Lord, who are the Three and the One God, blessed for ever and ever. Amen.”

Prologium, CHAPTER XXVI. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp

In these prayers both Augustine and Anselm assume not only a relationship between theology and holiness, meaning that what they believe ought to have some effect on how they live, but also the relationship between love and knowledge, that what they know of God moves them to deeper love of God, and deeper love moves them to deeper knowledge. The divorce between love and knowledge is the deeper issue faced by theologians today, and in my mind it is only in restoring that relationship that we can then heal the divide between theology and holiness. This is why Sertillanges and Griffiths are both such important voices in their respective descriptions of the intellectual life. They both understand the vocation in terms of love and desire. I pray that the same would be true for me and for a whole generation of theologians who hope to serve the church with theology.

Originality is Overrated

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In this post I want to continue diving into Paul Griffiths’ book The Intellectual Appetite and say one more thing about his discussion of curiosity as a vice in the intellectual life. I’m specifically interested in his notion that curiosity is the desire to possess or own knowledge. This is in contrast to the virtue of studiousness, which is about receiving knowledge rather than taking knowledge.

In his discussion Griffiths links the desire for ownership with the obsession in academic theology for originality. Speaking of his own approach to the topic of originality, Griffiths does not think of his own intellectual contributions in terms of ownership. He thinks more in terms of stewardship. Even in using the curiosity/studiousness paradigm, he acknowledges that he is not saying anything new or original to him. Rather, he says, “The definitions that follow are concordant with those found in the Christian tradition, but are not identical with any of them. I give them not in an exegetical spirit, but rather as a contributor to a tradition of thought whose authority I accept, and that I consider it a privilege to speak out of and thereby to extend” (20).

Notice that the goal is to contribute by extension rather than by novelty. Notice also that there is a strong sense of continuity, but continuity is not the same thing as exact replication. It is a conversation that moves forward, not because every conversant says the same thing in the same way, but because every conversant is committed to having the same conversation.

Sertillanges made a similar point , saying that what we might call originality is the convergence of a unique someone speaking something true in a true way. What is unique is the individual rather than the idea or concept. Now this does not mean that there are not such things as breakthroughs or new ways of thinking about things or paradigm shifts, but first, by and large all such shifts come from speaking within an existing paradigm or tradition.

In a recent email exchange, with a friend of mine, Christopher Benson, I tackled the same topic in a similar way. In that context I said:

Novelty has its place in theology, but it can’t be the driving force. In my mind the theologian is primarily a steward, first of divine revelation, and second of the tradition of the church. Jesus says something similar to the scribes: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Notice that there are new things to bring out, yes, but novelty isn’t the goal. The goal is properly stewarding the house.

The theologian usually doesn’t say new things. The theologian is more a steward of memory and reminds the church what she has forgotten.”

Style and Truth – What Self-Expression Really Means

Some of my doctoral research concerns the question of style, specifically what Hans Urs von Balthasar means by the idea of theological style. So I was stuck by Sertillanges’s thoughts on the subject of style as it relates to the intellectual life and to the quest for truth. (See previous posts on The Intellectual Life here)

As always Sertillanges relates the question of style to the broader themes of the book, namely that style must serve truth and express truth truly. But style also must express the self: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth. This instrument is a quality of my being, an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain, that is, it is a particular evolution of my style” (201). I find this fascinating because clearly style is more than self expression, but it is for Sertillanges nothing less than self expression either. Style at its best expresses both truth and the self, because within the vocation of the intellectual life the ultimate desire is that the self would conform to truth. So his version of “express yourself” is not the trope that launched a thousand self-help books because he is not saying that if I have expressed myself then I have expressed truth. Self-expression as an end in itself is at best a minimal standard for truth, namely the ideal of “my truth”, and at worst it is an imposter for the kind of truth Sertillanges commends. Rather he is saying that there is a possible harmony and correspondence between self and truth, and style is meant to express this correspondence.

One interesting implication: as long as there are selves seeking to express truth, there will always be interesting, creative, and original things to read and to wrestle with because, one, no self is the same, and, two, no one, not even Thomas Aquinas himself, can comprehensively express truth. In this regard, he says something about originality akin to C.S. Lewis, namely that aiming at originality is a fool’s errand and that originality emerges in the midst of seeking to represent truth truly.

Honestly, the best way to get a sense of what he means by style is to read the book. It is truly a pleasure to read and exemplifies many of the things he commends. For example, reading this description of style made me think of his own book: “Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of truth. Its role is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears.” Style is about what to say and what not say, what to leave in and what to take out. It is about patience. Like music, it is about dynamics, and requires listening. Listening first to the material, listening to that which we desire to express, and listening too at the level of language, to the ways words sound against each other and how they sound in the whole sequence of words.

A couple of other things to note. First, he commends taking up the pen earlier rather than later because it is through writing itself that thoughts are expressed and are sharpened. It is through the practice of writing that one develops certain habits of thinking, and it is in thinking that one pursues truth. There is an iterative circle, thinking produces writing, which in turn produces thinking, which in turn, one hopes, moves one closer and closer to truth. Second, I don’t take this as a prescription for all kinds of writing. Remember he is considering everything under the heading of the intellectual life, which he sees as a particular vocation, so he is discussing writing in these vocational terms. On the other hand though, it is not bad advice for poets, novelists, or even, dare I say, bloggers.

Virtues and Vices of the Intellectual Life: Or Why Curiosity Might Kill the Intellectual

Sertillanges begins his refections on virtue and vice by observing, “The intellect is only a tool; the handling of it determines the nature of its effects” (17). And how should one handle the intellect? With virtue, of course. And while all the classic virtues apply to the intellectual life, there is also “the virtue proper to the intellectual” and that is studiousness (25). Sertillanges says studiousness is related to temperance, which has to do with focusing on the right things in the right way for the right amount of time. It’s what he calls “the wise application of energy.” (See this post for more on energy.)

Studiousness also has to do with humility. Humility in the intellectual life means, among other things, honest self-understanding and a clear-eyed assessment of the limits of ones own gifts. As he puts it, “What wisdom and what virtue there is in judging oneself truly and in remaining oneself! You have a part that only you can play; and your business is to play it to perfection, instead of trying to force fortune. Our lives are not interchangeable. Equally by aiming too high and by falling too low, one misses the path to the goal. Go straight ahead, in your own way, with God for guide” (28). Sertillanges says in effect, I’m not St. Thomas and neither are you, but that doesn’t mean that we all shouldn’t use our gifts to the fullest that we can. To use the fullness of our gifts without resentment for who we are not is an act of gratitude. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts the same point, “the only gratitude for a gift is to be fruitful with the gift” (from The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 5).

If there are intellectual virtues, what then are the intellectual vices? “To the virtue of studiousness, two vices are opposed: negligence on the one hand, vain curiosity on the other” (25). Here Sertillanges speaks from the depths of the Christian tradition, particularly from the Augustinian tradition, when we speaks of curiosity as a vice. Curiosity is untempered, unfettered knowing, it is knowing for the sake of knowing, not for the sake of truth. Paul Griffiths discusses curiosity as vice in depth in the book The Intellectual Appetite, a book I plan to write some things about in the future. One of the things that defines curiosity for Griffiths is that it is often motivated by the hatred of not knowing. Nothing could be further from the love of truth than the hatred of not knowing. To hate the unknown is to be motivated by fear, fear of what one does not know and fear of being found out as ignorant or incompetent. These are selfish motivations, whereas the love of truth is selfless.

One other thing to note from this section, is that for all the talk of virtue and vice within the classical Christian tradition, it is amazing how contemporary and practical some of his advice seems. He says certain things that you might read on a productivity blog, things like eat well, sleep enough, exercise, spend time outdoors. The continuity of his advice with both our time and with Thomas’s speaks on one level to the perennial relevance of real wisdom and to paying attention to every aspect of the human person. Thomas is no kind of dualist, and neither is Sertillanges, so he does no separate the mind from the body. To cultivate the life of the mind, one must take care of the body. But I know that I’m continually looking for a different answer, as if sleep, exercise, food, proper rest and leisure, being outside, etc. weren’t really the majority of what I or anybody else needed.

Doing the Work – “Wise Application of Energy”

“One does not need extraordinary gifts to carry some work through; average superiority suffices; the rest depends on energy and wise application of energy. It is as with a conscientious workman, careful and steady at his task: he gets somewhere, while an inventive genius is often merely an embittered failure.” (The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges, 8).

As we saw in the last post, vocation begins with a moment of ecstasy. This moment of ecstasy, this summons of the self out of the self towards the True, towards the Good, towards the Beautiful, is essential and necessary, but it is not sufficient. The ecstatic moment ignites, but cannot sustain the vocation itself, and this is where the work really begins.

The ecstatic moment can only provide a sense of what to work on, or at least a sense of what to move towards, but it cannot in itself provide the how. How will I move forward? How will I make progress? These questions take us into the very heart of the intellectual vocation, or really any vocation. Let’s say I want to be a sculptor. I’ve been carried away by some great work, enraptured by the possibilities of the medium. But now to begin. What must I do? What must I learn? Or even more basic, how do I hold this chisel? These are questions related to what Sertillanges means by the use of energy and the application of energy.

I’m particularly taken by the phrase the “wise application of energy”. It seems exactly right to me because it compactly summarizes something I’ve discovered about intellectual work. I’ve found that using the right time of day to do the right kind of tasks has a compounding effect on my work that little else does. An hour of hard reading, writing, and studying anytime before noon is equivalent to two or three hours of work in the afternoon, or maybe even four in the evening. This basically means I’m good for nothing in the evening in terms of intellectual work, so it’s a wiser application of energy at that point to spend time with my wife, my kids, enjoy a drink, read some fiction, watch some TV. My energy is neither infinite nor consistent across time, which means part of the work is to pay attention to my own crests and troughs and then make the most of them.

Moreover, since I am not just a student, but also a priest and a father and a dad, I’ve found that the wise application of energy is the only way to survive. But even more than survival, there is actually something freeing in having other things to do. Having other work can be freeing in its own way because the intellectual work, the quest for truth, becomes on one hand a place of freedom and play. Other work also brings clarity. With other obligations the time devoted to the work must be intensely guarded and intensely focused. The guarding of the time is in one sense the most difficult thing, at least for me. More than distractions themselves or the desire to do something else, I’ve found working on a PhD that often the most arduous task, and so the thing that so often sabotage me, is protecting the time that I need in order to do the work. Once I am in the space, after an initial bout of inertia, generally the work takes over.

The application of energy is also about pacing yourself, and I was struck by the phrase “careful and steady at his task”, which reminded me of a phrase I came across in Helen Sword’s book, Air and Time and Light and Space—the snail conquers all. These words have kept me going and have kept me sane. It’s another way of saying be a tortoise and not a hare. It’s about chipping away, it’s about committing to a set of behaviors and tasks knowing that repetition will lead to accumulation. It is slow, yes, but it is momentum none the less.

So what to make of what he is saying here? On one hand he provides a workable model and workable time frame. One of the most astonishing things about the book is that he says you can cultivate the intellectual life with two hours a day. But on the other hand, he is not talking about a leisurely two hours. He’s talking about intensity of focus. As he says later on, “The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playin filed, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.” (4). In other words, the “work” itself may take place in two hours a day, but the vocation demands more than just the two hours a day. It means that the rest of my time is in some sense in service of those two hours and this is where the comparison to the athlete is instructive, because athletes don’t just train and then do whatever they might want. No, what they eat, when and how they sleep, everything is in service of that training. If, as we have seen in previous posts, the great work of the intellectual life happens in quiet and silence, then how we spend the rest of our time must in some sense serve that sense of quiet and silence. This is what I think he means by athlete of the mind.

What other practices and viruses does he commend? We will turn to that in the next post.

Vocation as Summons – What does ecstasy have to do with calling?

Vocation and Ecstasy

“Vocation calls for response which, in one effort to surmount self, hears and consents” (xxi). Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

I want to take a pause from reflecting on what Sertillanges has to say about reading and loop back to the beginning of the book and draw out some of his thoughts about the intellectual life itself and in particular the summons to the intellectual life. His thoughts on vocation are interesting in themselves, but what I find most fascinating is the way he consistently discusses vocation and ecstasy together. For him they are twined themes because both are a summons for the self to move outside the self. To answer the call, to respond to vocation, one must move beyond the self, and this is literally the nature of ecstasy, ek-stasis, the self moving out of the self toward the object of desire, in this case Truth. The pursuit of truth is the telos of the intellectual life, and from Sertillanges’ point of view, whether one is a theologian or a physicist, both are after the same thing, Truth with a capital T. And this quest for truth is not simply one of duty but one of delight as well. As he puts it, “Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy; only in the second place does the talent of arrangement, the technique of transitions, connection of ideas, construction, comes into play. Now, what is this ecstasy but a flight upwards, away from self, a forgetting to live our own poor life, in order that the object of our delight may live in our thought and in our heart?” (xix).

One reason I’m interested in this idea is because in my doctoral research I’m looking at some of the things Hans Urs von Balthasar has to say about ecstasy as it relates to beauty. Ecstasy, ek-stasis, as I said requires the movement of the self out of the self toward the object of desire. Both Sertillanges and Balthasar agree on this but approach the question from two different starting points. Sertillanges insists on the ecstatic nature of Truth, while Balthasar insists on the ecstatic nature of Beauty. Both are looking at the same question from different angles, namely the question of Being, and its constituent transcendentals—Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. In Balthasar’s image each of the three transcendentals are different doorways into the cathedral of Being, and right contemplation of Being is a part toward knowledge of God.

On the question of Truth and its relation to Being, Sertillanges makes this seemingly startling statement when he asserts, “the quasi-incarnation of God in being, of eternal Truth in every separate instance of the truth, should also lead up to a heavenly ecstasy.” (131) One might be taken aback by the incarnation language, but what he says is perfectly aligned with St. Thomas and much of the theological tradition. He is saying in effect that every instance of truth participates in Truth, and the Truth is constitutive of Being itself. What Sertillanges says is really just a riff on St. Thomas, whom is the master theologian of ecstasy: “For St. Thomas, ecstasy is the child of love; it carries you out of yourself, toward the object of your dreams. To love truth ardently enough to concentrate on it and so be transported into the universal, into the heart of abiding truths, is the attitude of contemplation and of fruitful production. One is then in a sense like the animal in the forest, concentrated, watchful, crouching with his eye on his prey; and the inner life is intense, but with a sense of distance as if one were moving among the stars. One feels at once delivered from all trammels and yet enchained, free and enslaved; one is fully oneself in surrounding to what is above self; one exults while forgetting self: it is a nirvana in which the intelligence is intensely happy and active” (133).

What we all want it ecstasy and what is important here is the necessity of contemplation. Contemplation is the fundamental act of the intellectual life, and without it there can be no summons, no vocation, no ecstasy, because contemplation is the posture of receptivity, what Sertillanges referred to in the reading section as docility. We cannot hear a call, a summons, if we do not have ears to hear. Contemplation is a path outs of the self towards the other, and so is a path of love. As a path of love, it is also a path of joy: “According to the Angelic Doctor, contemplation begins in love and ends in joy; it begins in the love of the object and the love of knowledge as an act of life; it ends in the joy of ideal possession and of the ecstasy it causes” (255). Ideal possession means to receive things in the manner that they are meant to be received, to love things in the manner in which they are meant to be loved, and one can only come to know such things through contemplation.

Four Kinds of Reading – More thoughts from The Intellectual Life

As I keep writing through The Intellectual Life, I’m struck how positively I respond to his approach to reading, which might in some ways seem heavy handed. Why do I even need his advice? After all, I’ve done a far bit of reading in my life already, and in some ways, I should already have settled some of these questions. And I suppose if somebody would have have asked me, I could have delineated some of my own approaches to reading, and what I would have said wouldn’t have differed substantially from what he suggests, even though my thoughts would not have been as systematic or as probing as his.

What I find most helpful, I think is having a typology, having categories that I can test my own approaches and experiences with reading against. And a typology of reading is precisely what Sertillanges offers. Like all typologies, it isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t account for borderline cases, meaning there is reading that bleeds from one category into another, or reading that is one type in a particular season and then becomes another type in another season. In any case, I’m happy for the categories if only as a heuristic to think through what I’m reading and why, and perhaps more importantly what I’m not reading and why.

In his typology, Sertillanges delineates four kinds of reading. But before listing the four types of reading, it is important to remember his framework. He is discussing reading in terms of the intellectual life and seeking to articulate how reading can best serve the quest for truth. Reading for him is directed toward that end. Certainly there are other kinds of reading, or other reasons to read, but these four types are meant to serve the vocation of the intellectual life.

So what are the four kinds of reading? “One reads for one’s formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation. There is fundamental reading, accidental reading, stimulating or edifying reading, recreative reading.” Additionally, each kind of reading demands different things of the reader. “Fundamental reading demands docility, accidental reading demands mental mastery, stimulating reading demands earnestness, recreative reading demands liberty” (152).

All these kinds of reading are worth exploring, but I want to discuss fundamental reading in depth. One way to distinguish fundamental reading from accidental reading is that while accidental reading demands our mastery, fundamental reading demands that we be mastered by the reading itself. This is what he means by docility, for in fundamental reading we submit ourselves to the intellectual masters of a given field. In fundamental reading we apprentice ourselves to great minds, in order to learn the craft of thinking. In fundamental reading we learn way finding in the quest for truth. And for these reasons, “the choice of intellectual father is always a serious thing” (153).

He argues that for a given topic there are probably 3 or 4 such authors to be concerned with, who will most fundamentally form our thought on a given topic. Although I wonder how true this outside of disciplines like theology and philosophy, I do think that there are authors that provide the intellectual scaffolding for the rest of your reading in a topic, so that when you turn to accidental reading, we read through the lens of the masters. When we apprentice ourselves to a great mind, we are not just learning to read but also how to think.

Sertillanges’ master is clearly Thomas Aquinas, and with even a passing acquaintance with Thomas, one can see how Sertillanges has absorbed pithiness and clarity from him. And yet he is not simply parroting his master. His own voice emerges as he seeks to think Thomas’s thoughts after him in his present circumstances. And that is what becomes his original contribution, to bring Thomas’s way of thinking, his way of questing for truth to bear on his own moment.

I’m again left reacting as I did before. When I read these prescriptive guidelines, at first I bristle. I bristle at the idea of docility, but then I recognize that whether I want that to be true or not, it has been true. Those thinkers that I first submitted myself to have for better or worse become my masters. There is imminent wisdom here. First, because time is limited, we have to make choices, we have to decide who and what matters most. We can’t read everything, so the question becomes who will we submit our minds to. Who will we allow to form us?

Second, when I think of every important thinker I know of, they each have an intellectual master. Each have apprenticed themselves to a master craftsman. Even if they have moved beyond their master. Even if they have rejected their master, they never the less have been formed by their master. Without Socrates, no Plato. Without Plato, no Aristotle. Without Aristotle, no Aquinas. Without MacDonald and Chesterton, no Lewis. And so on and so on.

Reading and Trying to Stay “Current” – More Reflections on The Intellectual Life

I’m continuing my reflections on The Intellectual Life by A.E. Sertillanges. You can read the first two posts here and here

After speaking of reading as a kind of food, Sertillanges discusses the temptation to stay current in our reading, especially reading about current affairs, and he makes this pun: “No current can take you to the point you aim at reaching” (148). He says that most people in the effort to stay current are swept away by the current. This picture and its attendant warnings seems especially potent in light of the ever present danger of being swept away by the streams of information we find ourselves swimming in. If information is a “feed”, then be careful of overfeeding at the trough. If information is a “current”, then be careful of being swept away, or worse still, be careful of drowning. 

So what to do? What does Sertillanges recommend? “A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily newspapers when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.” (149) Interestingly, I’ve head very similar advice in our current environment, and it is striking to me that Sertillanges made his warnings in the the 1940’s. So while we may face unique challenges in terms of both sheer volume and ease of access, there seems to be a perpetual temptation to staying current and being in the know.

But what really challenges me is what he has to say about silence. “Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence” (149). Yes, indeed. Reading is not itself reflection; it only sets the table for possible reflection. However, it is so easy to say that reading is refection itself, so the goal becomes reading itself, consuming as an end in itself, and not processing and producing on the basis of the reading.

The admonition for silence is well worth noting. Silence is not nothing. Silence is a generative space. Benedict XVI said something similar to a group of theologians, reminding them that the speaking and teaching of words, especially words about God, must be steeped in silence: “Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian. This is his mission in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora of words, to make the essential words heard. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.” (Homily at Eucharistic Concelebration with the members of the International Theological Commission, qtd. in Fire of Mercy: Heart of the Word, Vol. III by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis)

Nevertheless, though I heed Sertillanges’s warnings, especially as it relates to digital reading, they can seem a bit paternalistic, as if I cannot control myself as a reader, which is a funny thought. If taken too literally, these prescriptions could seriously undermine serendipitous reading that leads one further along the path. But I take the central point very seriously, especially related to the reflections in the first post, that reading and reading and reading, can first of all be an excuse to not do what really needs to be done, can second of all be excessive in a way that dulls rather than sharpens the mind, and third of all can keep one from silence, which is always where the real work is done. And reading can be a din, a droning distraction from that essential work of silence.

In the context of the intellectual life, there is always a great temptation to believe that what you have read is what matters most. Sertillanges says no. It is rather your discretion about what you read and why you read and what you do with what you have read that matters most. And it is silent reflection that matters most of all. Similarly, for the pastor who wants to preach in light of the best exposition and best scholarship, the question looms, when do I turn to commentaries? But S. would challenge the pastor to ask a very different question, “How much silence have I practiced?”

On Reading Less – Why deep reading is about intimacy

I want to continue reflecting on The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges by further exploring what he has to say about reading. In the previous post, I looked at his notion that in the intellectual life reading is proximate to and preparation for work. So if that is true, it implies that one must be careful of ones reading.

Reading is such an important topic for anyone who does intellectual work. And because it is important, there is a lot of advice related to it, and where there is advice, there is often anxiety. PhD students harbor deep seated anxieties about many things, but there seems to be an almost universal anxiety around reading. Among PhD students anxiety about having not read enough, both in terms of breadth and in terms of depth, runs rampant. Does my reading show that I know the field? Have I read deeply and widely enough? Have I read the right people in the right way? How much do I read before I write? Take all these questions and situate them within a thinking community, within a specific department, at a specific university, where there are right and wrong people to read and right and wrong ways to read them, and the anxiety only compounds.

These are not unimportant questions, but they can paralyze more than they free one to do the work that needs to be done. To such people, what advice does Sertillanges offer? “The first rule” he says, “is to read little” (146). And why read little? Because reading is like food, and reading too much can lead to “the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort” (146).

Ah, easy familiarity, I know you well. And how often I settle for you instead of hard won intimacy. In intellectual pursuits, intimacy may not be the first or even the last concept that comes to mind, but it is important to reflect on when discussing not just reading, but the whole life of the mind. In theology in particular we don’t simply explore ideas, but apprentice ourselves to great minds, to those who have gone before, and to gain true understanding of them requires a depth of not just intellectual but emotional investment. To take on someone’s thinking, to let it in, to try it on, to consider it first on its own terms—these are intimate things.

And here I think is another reason to read little and to read wisely. In economic terms, reading is an enormous investment of time and energy, which means that in reading we must consider opportunity cost. Reading one thing means I am not reading another, or to put it in terms of the Information Age, in reading anything I am choosing not to read everything. To continue the economic metaphor, some books are worth the investment and some are not. Some are worth a little time, worth what Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book calls an inspectional read . And there are some books, some authors that reward every moment that you can give them. These are the books worth reading well, reading deeply, reading again. On the Incarnation is such a book. The Confessions is such a book. For me, Hans Urs von Balthasar has become the great mind that I am apprenticing myself to and investing deep effort into understanding. Sertillanges insists, and I have found this to be true, that the blessing of learning from great minds is that in understanding them you also come to understand so much else as well.

Reading little doesn’t simply mean reading less material, though on some level it does mean that. It means primarily reading select authors and books more and other things less or not at all. But how do I choose? This is the question that has launched a thousand book lists and has generated a million questions about what does and does not constitute a great book. I hope to get into some of these questions in later posts, but for now, I think there are some simple questions to question. The first question is who are the great minds in the field I hope to consider. This is not the question of who matters right now but rather a question of who has made a mark, not simply made a splash. There are trends, currents in every field, and we must at least be tangentially aware of them, but there are thinkers, writers, and books that are trend-proof, that endure, and I think there is wisdom in starting with these books

Our communities also help us choose, and this can be for good or for ill. It is worth thinking through what is read and what is not read in a given community and to ask why. As Sertillanges observes, “We never think alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.” This is by and large a wonderful blessing. I will admit that I have friends who do certain kinds of reading for me, meaning, I rely on them to tell me about books that might interest me but that I will never have time to read myself. I also rely on them to help direct my attention to things, to people, and to ideas that I might have missed otherwise.

But perhaps the most penetrating take away for me from this section is that reading less means starting to get ruthless about certain kinds of reading, and starting to curtail or eliminate those kinds of reading. One of the things that Sertillanges believes we could all use less of is news. I will take up his thoughts on staying “current” in the next post.