Only the Lover Sings

November 23, 2018



My husband and I have a practice of shared spiritual reading on Sundays. It started during our engagement when we read Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married together, and we’ve kept it going. We pick a book (Robert Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing, Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, etc.) and read a chapter (or maybe just a subsection) aloud to each other, alternating every paragraph.

Our current book is a collection of talks given by Josef Pieper: Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. One passage, found in a talk titled “Work, Spare Time, and Leisure” that Pieper gave at the opening of an art exhibition has been sticking with me (and makes for good counter-reading to Black Friday’s bid for our attention and our anxiety).

Pieper is discussing “activities that are meaningful in themselves,” which he considers to be the activities that move us toward contemplation, the activities that help us to “touch, even remotely, the core of all things, the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe, the divine foundation of all that is.”

It was Pieper’s description of one trait by which we may recognize these activities that I’ve kept returning to. He writes:

An activity which is meaningful in itself, first, cannot be accomplished except with an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence—which, indeed, is the exact opposite of the worker’s attitude marked by concentrated exertion. One of the fundamental human experiences is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come about perhaps not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts. Rather, we will obtain them only if we can accept them as free gifts.

I’m spending my year in two fellowships—I’m working on lessons as a Word on Fire Institute Fellow and working on feature articles themed around generous forms of protest as a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. I’ve been doing interview after interview as part of my Novak work, and I keep being surprised how little I feel like Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who unravelled the Watergate coverup.

I had thought of reporting as being primarily about uncovering hidden truths, prying away their covers and wresting them from their captors. And some kinds of journalism and stories certainly require that muckracking work. But, in my recent work, it feels much more like I write my stories thanks to the gifts of providence.

People choose to tell me things that I would never have thought to ask. Sometimes, I’m present at just the right moment to learn that a parish is so big as to have once had eight Pats on staff. Or to see a group of history high school students at the exact moment they realize that they would have picked different sides in the Revolutionary War.

Instead of actively discovering, I am more often receiving. My task is to be still and contemplative, entering into what others have invited me into. Only after a good deal of “receptive openness and attentive silence” do I have the wisdom to pose any probing questions of my own.

In another one of Pieper’s books, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, he warns the reader that our orientation toward hard work, effort, and results leaves us suspicious of the contemplative attitude that work that is meaningful in itself requires. Pieper writes: “The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”

Everything, ultimately, is given to us as a gift. An allergy to receptivity, stillness, and leisure will, if taken to its logical conclusion, lead us to reject God and all of his creation. I’m grateful for all the ways my interview subjects have interrupted my driven approach, forcing me to pause, inviting me into awe.

In any form of work or personal time, we can invite contemplation in, by following the advice of St. Josemaria Escriva: “Add a supernatural motive to your ordinary professional work, and you will have sanctified it.”