Modernity and Rest

Ruins4

Fountains Abbey

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

To seek times of silent reflection in order to listen to the essence of things is to assume that things have an essence to be heard. According to Josef Pieper, in his seminal essay, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to the medievals, “held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation.”[1] This entails another assumption, namely that there is something to receive, that there is something given, that there is a Giver that gives. Pieper contends that these assumptions together form the basis of true rest, and that rest necessarily culminates in a kind of worshipful celebration of God. This is true leisure. It is something given gratuitously and received with joy. Most of all, it is deeply affirming. I have come to see that to enter into a time of silence with these two assumptions makes a world of difference.

About ten years ago, as a mother of two young girls, I found myself in a time of intense spiritual doubt. In many ways, I felt like an atheist, albeit a reluctant atheist. As any mother will tell you, the work of caring for very young children is uniquely exhausting. There are many elements of our modern moment that make both pregnancy and motherhood particularly challenging, and the rise in post-partum depression is the best evidence of this. A radically individualistic mindset creates a sense of loneliness, and a persistent devaluing of motherhood makes one feel estranged from the workaday ideal. The modern world does not know how to care for its mothers.

I was unable to truly rest and this took a toll on me physically, intellectually, emotionally, and, most of all, spiritually. It was recommended that I force myself to take breaks during the day – to rest! Put the kids to bed, close the blinds, sit, and enjoy the silence. This, it was claimed, would help me tremendously, but it did not. I found that the complete silence was unnerving for it forced me to see my crumbling faith. Anxiety seemed truly inescapable. Silence reminded me of the loneliness I felt without God.

The poem “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is beautifully significant for me for, like the speaker in the poem, it was in moments of silent contemplation as a young mother that I felt most estranged from the world. A silence “so calm, that it disturbs/ And vexes meditation with its strange/And extreme silentness” forced itself upon me.[2] It was here that modernity met me and left me frostbitten. While “my cradled infant slumbers peacefully,” I wondered about her future and I began to see what little I had to give her.[3] Though I loved her fiercely, my cup seemed empty. “For I was reared /In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,” but unlike the poet, I could see little of the sky and stars through the city’s light pollution.[4] The daytime quiet of my little suburb was not the result of rest, but of barrenness for the children were all packed away in daycares while their parents were packed away in offices in the city.

I eventually found a cure in study – patient, persistent study over a very long period of time. One by one, I worked to dismantle the myriads of doubts that flummoxed my faith. It is not that the times of silence were useless – I found that they helped me physically. But a kind of spiritual anemia remained. My mind was not at ease. In these times of silence, I found myself “suddenly thrown back upon the essentials” upon which the surface of our modern lives rests and those essentials were found wanting.[5] I lacked the affirmation of which Pieper speaks because I doubted its very existence. I had to work myself back to what he calls “the only premise” upon which true rest can be found: “that man consents to his own true nature and abides in concord with the meaning of the universe.”[6]

If the universe has no meaning, then there is never any rest – just a futile chasing after the wind.[7] During my time of doubt, my silence was truly a terrifying experience of the nothingness of existence without God (Pascal’s “silence of these infinite spaces”). Anything good I might focus my thoughts upon, anything I might look to with some sort of gratitude, quickly turned colorless and even painful in light of the fact that all will return to the dust from whence it came and the earth will remember it no more.

Thankfully, like Coleridge, I also sensed that to even trust in my doubt I must believe that it somehow transcended itself. Surely, I could not escape the conviction that I was molded to ask questions and wonder: “he shall mould /Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.”[8] Malcolm Guite writes that Coleridge “never ceased to be amazed by the fact that the universe is intelligible, by the fact that we not only perceive it in a coherent and ordered way, but that its coherence and order provide us with a vocabulary of symbols with which to explore a similar coherence and order, both within ourselves and beyond through the veil of nature.”[9] I clung to this ‘argument from reason’ (and imagination!) during my own season of the “secret ministry of the frost.”[10] Credo ut intellegam.

Our world is not at rest on purpose. It avoids “that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.”[11] Pieper writes that “only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”[12] What modernity might hear in silence is that the humanism upon which it is founded fails to provide the grounds for a meaningful life. This why Chesterton wrote that this age of Science may understand the cosmos, it indeed may paint a pretty, little picture of the universe that is “complete in every rivet and cog-wheel,” but it is ultimately smaller than our world.[13] It is smaller because it leaves no room for “the serenity [that] springs from our inability to understand, from our recognition of the mysterious nature of the universe” that calls forth reverent wonder.[14] And this is the kind of wonder that restores us to our place, takes us home, and sets us aright once again. Wonder tells us who we are for we have forgotten. Wonder restores us.  It “heals the wound” of our sinful abuse of autonomy by beckoning us out of ourselves.[15]

I can say that today these times of silence calm my modernity-mangled nerves much more than before. I enter them with more of a readiness to receive because of a faith that there is something given that is much greater than me. I come to them with confidence that there is a great and constant Father of heavenly lights who gives generously and without reproach.[16] I can bring my anxious thoughts and trust them to His goodness – for I am more confident that He is the fount from whence all goodness flows. This confidence provides much sustenance during the silence. Silence is no longer lonely and empty. I am not alone, for even silence cannot hide Him.[17]

RUin5

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 28.

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” Poetry Foundation, Accessed February 14, 2018, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43986/frost-at-midnight.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Josef Pieper, 10.

[6] Ibid., 48

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV.

[8] Guite, Coleridge

[9] Guite, 153.

[10] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” Poetry Foundation, Accessed February 14, 2018, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43986/frost-at-midnight.

[11] Pieper, 46.

[12] Ibid.

[13] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 18.

[14] Pieper, 47.

[15] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 140.

[16] James 1:5, 17, ESV.

[17] Psalm 139, ESV.