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.

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.

Is reading work? Thoughts from The Intellectual Life

“Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production.” A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

Over the course of a few posts, I want to point to some of the wisdom that I gleaned from The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges. I first encountered the book in Cal Newport’s Deep Work, but I didn’t pick it up at that time. I wished I would have. Though Deep Work was very helpful to me at a time when I was deeply distracted and needed some more structure around my work, and though I still use Cal Newport’s time blocking techniques to schedule my time, Sertillanges writes from within the Christian intellectual tradition, so his book is more than technique, more than helpful hints for “getting things done” by overcoming distraction, and, most importantly, more than a vague exhortation toward “creating value”. Rather Sertillanges offers a vision of truth, and in lifting up that vision he spurs those who read him to seek truth by enumerating the means by which we can best undertake that quest.

The book is essentially an extended commentary on a letter St. Thomas sent to a fellow Dominican entitled Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasures of Knowledge. And The Intellectual Life is Thomist through and through. It offers a vision of a world of order, a world of virtue and vice, a world where ideas like vocation are not just a modern gloss for personal passion. Through his commentary on these precepts, Sertillanges grounds the intellectual life in the spiritual and contemplative quest for truth, which for Sertillanges is the quest for God. But the book is not just for theologians, and certainly not just for academics. The book is for anyone set on acquiring knowledge, on seeking truth.

I decided to read the book when a friend of mine, Aaron Jeffrey, mentioned Sertillanges in the context of thinking about vocation in general, and specifically in the context of the intellectual vocation of the pastor/theologian. I’m very grateful to Aaron for the recommendation. The book has been deeply affirming to me, but also deeply challenging. It has especially challenged my understanding of reading, which is why I started with the quote above. Even though it comes from the middle of the book, I want to start here because his discussion of reading encouraged me to start writing through his book as a way of turning reading into production and challenged me to turn more of my reading into something, to produce as he says.

Concerning reading and the quote above, here is what I took from him, and I think it has something to say to any of us who spend a good chunk of time reading and to any of us who do intellectual work. In the intellectual life there is no possibility of real work without real reading, but reading is not the real work. As Sertillanges has it, reading is not production itself but proximate to it. To read is to prepare to produce. In other words, reading is not meant to be an end in and of itself; it is meant to be generative. Reading is meant to beget.

It may seem that he minimizes reading with this statement, but really he is reframing what reading is by saying what reading is for. There is a progression. First we learn, especially by reading, and then we produce. But learning is not itself production, and therefore reading is not itself production either. Now he is not saying that reading doesn’t involve work. If we think of work as expending effort, reading certainly costs something. Reading well is especially costly—it cost time and energy most of all, but also the opportunity cost of not doing something else instead. And for those for whom reading is especially cumbersome, it certainly feels like work. But in the context of the intellectual life and vocation, we can’t stop simply after we have read. We must ask, what might this reading beget? How might this reading be generative in the quest for truth?

What challenges me about this is that there is a real and meaningful distinction between learning and between production. For so long, I’ve thought of myself solely as a student, so learning was production, the work was to learn. But now as a pastor and as doctoral student, the task is to produce, and reading must serve that production. So now teaching becomes a means of production. Writing becomes a means of production. I read now, primarily, in order to teach and in order to write. (I’ll have something to say in a later post about what he calls reading for diversion and about pleasure in reading).

I began with this quote because this statement sets up much else of what he has to say about reading, especially why we ought to be careful of what we read and careful of how much we read. There is something in my that bristles against these prohibitions, but when I think of what he says in light of an intellectual life with the aim of producing work, I know that he is on to something. Also, thinking of reading as a means to something helps me think of my reading as moving me somewhere rather than as a destination unto itself, and so it pushes me to avoid reading that is for reading’s sake. If we think of reading as work itself, as productive in and of itself, then we can be pulled into an endless vortex of reading. If we read for the sake for reading, then reading begets more reading instead of reading begetting work.