Author: joy and matthew steem

Why Leisure Matters – Part 1 of 2

Peasants harvesting crops, by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, 17th century

Peasants Harvesting Crops by Pieter Brueghel

Work is divine. God is revealed as the great worker and it is through work that men become like God. It is through work that man finds his life and his life is measured by his work … to run away from work is to run away from life. To repudiate work is to commit suicide.
   —Gus Dyer, columnist in the 1930s

Many times the happy benefit of belonging to a certain nationality is that one can riotously criticize it, where otherwise it would be sacrosanct—and worse, politically incorrect! Anyway, coming from a rural German Protestant family I know a thing or two about a work ethic. Cleanliness might be next to Godliness, but work is even holier than soap. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right”? Ever since being young enough to remember, a pristinely praiseworthy comment was, “oh my, but that person is a good worker.” And when that worker was me it was enough to motivate the righteous action of “putting one’s back into it” even more.

Oh yes, you could know a person by their fruits. In fact, chances were that if those fruits reeked of sweat and toil—Jesus was totally happy too. After all, you will remember scripture commanding, “do it as unto the Lord” (i.e. the Lord wants your all) and do it with all your strength (with that I would ask myself, “would Jesus be ok with just an 8 hour workday?”). If doing for God and with all your strength wasn’t enough, the proviso was added, “do it without grumbling and complaining too” (you wanna argue with Jesus?!! Now get back to work, slob! … after all Jesus went to the cross for you).

God bless my grandmother, but even when it comes to potential relationships, work ethic is one of the first questions asked. “Is this person a good worker”?

Thanks grandma.

And so I was stilled for a moment when I read “have leisure and know that I am God” in Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture (which has an excellent introduction by T.S. Eliot, by the way).

The search engine in my mind came up with nothing like that in the scripture I had read. I had never heard that verse before. (This will show my lack of Catholic bible tradition.) Trusting Pieper’s credentials, I went on to one of the most contrary ideas I had come across in my German upbringing, and it was written by a German none-the-less! Stupendous.

So what of grandma’s high valuation of a good work ethic? Well of course a good worker is something to be valued. If you have read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism you will have read that capitalism itself has been greatly shaped by it. (It should be noted here that good ol’ Weber was prone to cherry picking quotes—a horrid thing—and his thesis actually shouldn’t be taken quite as serious as it is, considering proper historiographical methodology.)

Pieper is not against work itself—in fact, he says that you can’t have leisure without it! —however, he asserts, since God’s creation is good, our enjoyment is of the utmost to God. And of course enjoyment is not merely efficiency or production. It can include that, but those things in themselves aren’t ends. Ultimately, it is ends with which Pieper is interested.

Enter leisure.

To be continued tomorrow.

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The Chesterton I was Wrong About

Ever had one of those cool moments when, after reading about a favorite person, you suddenly receive this flash of insight? You feel one part shame for not seeing it before, but three parts satisfaction for at least coming to it eventually? Well, I should have seen this with G.K. Chesterton quite some time ago, but I didn’t. The surprising insight was that he was, like, actually, friendly.

I was introduced to a Chesterton who was so cool a cat that he could trounce any erroneous and ill-conceived ideology: political or religious or anything else which might stand in the way of orthodoxy. This Chesterton destroyed the proud scientific triumphalism of H.G. Wells and Huxley (think eugenics), the utopian dreams of Shaw, and other secular humanists of his time. This giant, mentally and otherwise, trounced the materialists and atheists with blasting wit and withering humour. To be truthful, I originally read the man in the following way: I searched for a topic that I disliked and then would try to find an essay on which Chesterton criticized it. (This is a wretchedly shameful thing, and I have since repented heartily.) Of course, generally if you look for a thing, you can find it. But it’s just not the right way to go about it. But everybody knows this, so I will move on.

I suppose I might have seen Chesterton as the Crusader—sword of truth in hand, gleefully excited  to bloodily slay the perfidious untruth—in light of him being introduced to me as an apologist. This is one of the troubles with some Christian apologetics: it seems that often the desire to be correct is more important than that the apologist demonstrates a loving alternative to an error in reason, however, that’s another topic. Anyway, I read how Chesterton had, with short shrift, dealt with the heretics of his day. To make matters worse, I read some of his more popular works (Orthodoxy, Heretics, What’s Wrong with the World and others) through that lens: tinted with impatience, brute force and pomposity. And of course, sometimes when having a crusader mentality, that seems pretty cool!

Yet, having read more of the man, I see that my early assumptions were about as far out to lunch as … well, I don’t know what. I was just really wrong. Chesterton was actually hugely humble, rarely took to an uncharitable offensive—according to most who knew him and all the biographers—and was exceedingly gracious. He also took the time to understand thoroughly the arguments of his opponents—a thing that Thomas Aquinas would approve—and tried to always gain some type of common ground with an opponent.

Moreover, unlike debaters of our own time, Chesterton was actually friends with many of his opponents. Yes, he actually was. I mean no disrespect towards to apologists like William Lane Craig for instance, but I doubt very much that if Mr. Craig died, Hitchens (if he were alive today) or Dawkins or Sam Harris etc., etc., would offer the widow financial assistance! Yet after Gilbert Keith Chesterton had passed away, this is exactly what Shaw did. During his lifetime, his opponents were truly his friends. And I wonder if this is why he was so persuasive in his life: because he was not wrestling against a person but rather an ideology. He loved people, and because his actions followed suit, people listened to him.

Chesterton once said “the mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversation.”

I wonder if today many of the apologist types—all of us—need to worry more about initiating conversation and friendship than in just being right.

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Not Just for Dark and Stormy Nights

Princessgoblincptr3 (1)

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1920).

It happened in the closing days of an expansive week and a half in Scotland seeing the awe inspiring ruins, breathing the thick Celtic air, rambling on the highlands and feasting on their startlingly fresh strawberries and unbeatable spuds. Settling into my early morning flight to London, I saw a ghastly image that has never quite left me: a spiny, mustard-yellow man whose grizzled body displayed with such shocking translucence the clawing effects of a life-sucking illness that the look at his decaying body arrested me with a terror so sudden and thorough that all human compassion was replaced with a gripping horror. I sat debilitated, crushingly ashamed and utterly terrified.

Searching the caches of memories filed under “comfort,” I inwardly regenerated the likeness of Great Great Grandmother from George MacDonald’s Princess stories. Reassured by the gentle crooning that all worthy rockers make under the noble weight of maternal figures, I pictured Great-Great Grandmother sitting in her attic spinning: the splendour of her luxurious silver hair softening the sharper angles of her shoulders, her rich sparkling eyes evidencing shimmering wells of compassion and strength. At that moment, as I stood in the doorway to Great Great Grandmother’s attic, I knew she would welcome me to her side, despite, perhaps even because, of the weight of my shame and fear. She, MacDonald’s illustrious depiction of the feminine side of God, would call me to her warmth and envelop me with strength and courage.

The Princess stories were my introduction to MacDonald, and the image of Great Great Grandmother has been significant in my spiritual development. My head and heart have had a thorough plunging into the world of George MacDonald of recent. MacDonald’s letters, unspoken sermons, essays, fiction, poems and biographies are in the process of burrowing into my heart and soul, much like a tick into the damp fleshy parts of a mammal.

This absorption evidences itself in several ways, I sometimes catch myself three bumpy lines into a sentence, hoping against hope to smooth out the rough waters of miss mashed consonants and commas, semi-colons and symbols all fighting for prominence. When this happens, my groan is swiftly followed with an optimistic sigh; I am pleased that MacDonald’s influence is consciously and unconsciously making its way into my inner workings. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the entirety of his world view, now that I know more about it, he has illustrated a more compassionate, gracious and loving approach to life. And, as such, philosophy, theology, personality and penmanship, when I see bits of it eeking out in my own work? Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

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An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald

The world of written personal correspondence can be a tremulous one. I discovered this while in the preliminary stages of a questing romantic relationship. 
I was, not unkindly, told that the “real life me” was quite pleasantly different than the more opaque “me in letters.”

Now, this judgement had nothing to do with how or in what light I presented myself, but the way I presented myself. In print, it was gently suggested, it seemed I may have felt the urge to prove prowess and hide true meanings in complex language and ideologies—trying to demonstrate ability rather than authenticity. In my letters, it seemed to my correspondent, I took pains to veil myself: to create complexities of meaning that, in real life, were an illegitimate representation of the real time me. This suggestion, though not intended to hurt, did indeed cause much troubling self-doubt and questioning of my abilities and motivations as a communicator. In truth, I was not trying to flex an amateur writing muscle, and I was tender that the attempt to bare my soul and thoughts in letters was interpreted as mere posturing. Many maturing persons learn to cultivate the painful experience of being misunderstood into fodder for genuine flourishing: leaning with greater trust into the true self and the Person from whom it has been forged. Perhaps it wasn’t the complete misunderstanding that I had earlier hoped, though. In this case, I have wondered for years if those letters belied an unconscious belief about what the important stuff is: the stuff which deserves to be written about.

There are limitations to words on a page, of course. We all know what these are: turns of words and phrases shorn of tone, facial expression or body language. It seems in this age of communicative technology we have aids to visual transparency—though if our relationships are richer for it I am in great doubt. But this is not a diatribe on the dying art of penmanship; it is a meditation on what I learned of George MacDonald the man through his letters.

I started out expecting to learn some behind the scenes information about his theology, approach to composition, relationships and outlook on life in general. And while I did get some glimpses into these issues, what I really gained was perspective on MacDonald as a human being. A man who started a great deal of his letters with phrases like “I am ashamed to see by the date of your note how long I have delayed my answer” or “I am dreadfully busy, and carry a conscience oppressed with letters unwritten.” MacDonald the sufferer: a man often afflicted at various stages of his life with lumbago, back aches, abscesses, asthma, pleurisy, bronchitis, sleep disturbances, poverty and loss. MacDonald the requester: the hopeful often asking for help, whether monetary, materially or for a recommendation from a person of influence. MacDonald the friend: the writer of hope filled birthday wishes and heart filled condolences, gratitude rich thank you notes and pain soaked news of personal loss.

Perhaps, unconsciously, I was hoping to discover a hidden artifact or a little known nugget of knowledge that would help me piece together his vision: instead what I saw was evidence of the merit he placed in the daily-ness of life. George MacDonald the man of personal correspondence was just that: a man. Of course, as a human saturated and consummated in the vast breadth of Love, these themes pervade his letters, but the letters themselves are not necessarily about them. The near ordinariness of his topics is compelling. I should, of course, not be surprised by this because he did not reject the stuff our days are made of. He knew that no person is ordinary and no life is humdrum: we are children of “a live heart at the center of the lovely order of the Universe—a heart to which all the rest is but a clothing form—a heart that bears every truthful thought, every help-needing cry of each of its children.”

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Hagar Shipley Helps Me See

“Do you ever get used to such a place?’

She laughs then, a short bitter laugh I recognize and comprehend at once.
“Do you get used to life?” she says.
    —Margaret Laurence,
The Stone Angel

Last summer a friend and I pooled together some resources to cross half an ocean and take an elderly friend of the family on a day long excursion to a tourist attraction (we did other stuff when we were there too, so don’t esteem my altruism too highly). Not adept at planning, we took great care in organizing transportation, meals, operation hours, admission costs/requirements, mobility aids etc. On the way home from our pleasant outing, my friend asked the dozing but cognitively sharp octogenarian what was one of the most important things to living a worthwhile life.

The response? “Don’t ever go into debt. Save all your money.”

That’s it.

That was her advice.

In the months that have ensued I have been thinking a lot about the expectations we place on others, particularly the elderly. When I find myself frustrated with the ones in front of me, I often reach for the ones from literature for guidance. For me, one of these fictive individuals is Hagar Shipley from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

Canadian author and literary critic George Woodcock recounts that the staying power of great literature in general, and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel in particular, is related to its ability to depict universality as well as uniqueness. In Hagar Shipley, the increasingly dependent 90 year old protagonist, he says, we recognize enough aspects of our own grandmother that we have a certain sense of familiarity. Too much familiarity though, he warns, is tedious so all good authors also establish a degree of uniqueness which draws us in.

I’m not sure I see either of my grandmothers in Hagar, nor would I particularly want to. She treats others with harsh judgement, spite, resentment and a startling lack of insight. She assumes the worst intentions and is not easily entreatable. She is in fact, as her son refers to her, “a holy terror.”

So just what is it about Hagar that I find myself being drawn to again and again? What is in the recollection of this terrifying woman that revitalizes my patience and maybe even kindness when I find myself in the extended company of the aged? Perhaps it is my sympathy to Hagar’s dogged determination to the North American ideal of freedom (which, according to Margaret Atwood and others, defines her struggle). Or maybe, as Woodcock suggests, it is the loud grumblings and rumblings humanity makes along the path of mere survival. How can this story’s startling reminder of mortality, human frailty, and tendency to egoism possibly encourage gentleness?

I think, for me, it is this: Laurence has entrusted something to the embittered and feisty Hagar that I sometimes forget to concede to people labeled “other”: humanity. Laurence has created a character with foibles and flaws and a striking sense of individuality. Hagar Shipley busts through the stereotypes we often place on the elderly: she is neither sweet nor kind nor senile nor particularly sagacious in a way we recognize.

And she, just as we, when asked “does one get used to life?” must shrug. She has not gotten used to life. Life, after all, is not a pizza or a bedspread. Life is not conquerable; it is not predictable; it is usually not even understandable. It just is.

Hagar’s tale is not necessarily a cautionary one, though she does eventually recognize that she has carried the backbreaking chains of pride throughout her life which has tragically “shackled all she touched.” I’m not sure Laurence means for me to pity Hagar, just as she does not entice me to emulate her. What Laurence does do is help me see: help me see the humanity in others and the humanity in me. And, while I am looking through that view, my capacity for compassion is enlarged.

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Stubborn Patience in Paradise Lost

Illustration for John Milton's Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré, (1886) showing Lucifer's descent and his deterioration into Satan

Illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré, (1886)

Last night I dreamt that I got lost again. It’s a frequent dream for me: I can’t find my car or my way home. While that type of dream may have metaphorical meaning for some people, I think it is most likely pretty literal for me. When I was a kid, sometimes I had to ask my friends at sleepovers to remind me where their bathroom was because I couldn’t quite remember their house layout and I was scared of opening the wrong door. Before smart phones and GPSs, using public transit was a complete nightmare. In addition to having the tendency of getting lost, I am also pretty good at remaining unseen. It was not that uncommon for me to be the last one sitting on the bus patiently awaiting my destination when the driver would turn around, and, with a start say, “I had no idea there was still a passenger on here!” Sometimes, I had gotten on the right bus, but on the wrong side of the street and so ended up at the other side of the city.

Often, in an attempt to make me feel better, people will tell me that they are not very good with directions either. They mean well, but it doesn’t really help; it makes me feel like they think they understand, but they don’t. It can be somewhat isolating. So, when I meet someone who has a similar challenge it can be really quite bonding.

The petite elderly professor who taught me Paradise Lost was like that. One of her colleagues once told our class that said professor was so perpetually lost that it was sometimes an accomplishment for her to find her way home from a neighbour’s. True or not, the impression stuck and she became among my favorite instructors. When she spoke of Milton’s Satan, Adam, and Eve, I paid attention and was quite nearly riveted. Without power point, whiteboard, props or even a dramatic voice, the passages she pointed to were gripping. I still read it from time to time. The story fascinates me. I know the ending, how can I possibly be so transfixed, I sometimes wonder. I’m beginning to think I might have an inkling of what particularly fascinates me about the story: Satan.

Perhaps of all the lines in Paradise Lost, the description of Satan’s “stubborn patience as with triple steel” is among the most chilling for me. The Fallen Angel’s designs to deceive and destroy God’s freshly created Eve and Adam stuns me with its icy resolution. It strikes me because of its dissimilarity with the nature of evil that I often see portrayed in culture and literature: hot, passionate, sensual desire with searing results. Milton, however, shows us a Satan who is not sexy, only stubborn.

Like Francis Underwood of House of Cards, Satan’s plans are strategic, stealthy and unwearied: his will is enduring and his resilience indestructible. Perhaps this image is so striking for me because of the composed calmness the line suggests he possesses. There is little hustle and bustle going on at this moment; instead, there is cold calculation. Rather than the perpetrator of forbidden fun like the devil (who can forget Al Pacino in this role) in Devil’s Advocate, Milton’s antagonist embodies the nature of evil Charles Williams explores in Descent into Hell: deliberate, incremental and isolating steps that go deeper and deeper into the non-spectacular: the anti-spectacular, in fact, for it is oblivion.

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