I am reading Homer. Each day, I pick up the book and think of a beautiful thing I share with all people who read Homer: time to read Homer.
Several things are needful for a contemplative life, and all of them plague me with guilt. For a quiet place, a quiet mind, and a worthy subject, all three, I am deeply thankful. Of their fragility I am sorely aware.
All over the world, the daily threat of starvation or falling ordinance, domestic violence or unpaid heat bills keep survival foremost in human minds. Historically, it has been in brief, blessed pockets of time and place that these three needful things converge. In the breath of these spaces, we pursue and preserve our humanity.
The great noise of need and the press of daily tasks can level an edifice more quickly than we can build it in pen and parchment. Josef Pieper tells us that the “great, imperishable intuitions visit a man in his moments of leisure.” And while we may not be able to slow the world around us or force it to attend, we can protect our own leisure.
Monks, as a percentage of medieval populations, were few. If a person’s goal was to save the world through literacy, the most obvious plan would be to get as many books as possible into many, many hands. That person would mass-produce thrift editions. But the call to contemplation is a call to personal obedience, and a relinquishing of outcomes and world-saving.
The monks lowered their heads and invested days and years in the painstaking details of illuminated copywork.
Goals of stewardship, faithfulness, and meditation on truth and beauty first take effect in forming the steward. Even at this insular level, we control only a fraction of the process. The time and texts are provided. The outcomes, for self or for humanity, are out of our hands. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” one wise wizard chides us. Tend a small flame, give thanks for the fuel, and trust that God will direct its light.
Homer reminds me of this not only in the blinking morning moments I carve out for him, but in his story. How small and insignificant must the work of weaving seem to Penelope, who nightly unravels her day’s labors? Anyone who has mopped a floor in a house full of children must agonize over such a Sisyphean task, but the weaving and the mopping are acts of preservation, too. Penelope says of her frail effort, while ravenous suitors pace and plunder downstairs, “My heart is melting . . . but I spin schemes” (19.137-139). We have small corners to protect, and to most are given small, invisible roles of stewardship. If today I sit under a secure roof with a book and a pen and attend to a yellowed page, this is not a cause for guilt and self-flagellation. This is a cause for “happiness doubled by wonder,” as Chesterton defines thankfulness. This is a good work for all of humanity.
I don’t mean a pastel fantasy of all earth’s 7.5 billion people sitting by a stream together, eagerly discussing theology to the background melody of a pan flute. Neither does Penelope imagine her cunning alone can forever withstand the tides of destruction. But what we have is worth the struggle. “The worst thing humans suffer is homelessness,” says Odysseus (15.343-344). And in our small ways, we make home and we build cultures. The word of the Lord comes to Zechariah with the question, “Who despises the day of small things?” My life is made up of small things, and I hope that as I shift from Bible to books to brooms and back again, I recognize them as a plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel (Zech. 4:10).
For the many of us who won’t have a global impact this year, we can yet preserve possibility. We can, by our attendance to enlarging ideas, feel both dwarfed and charged. How right is Dickens’ character Esther Summerson when she says, “I looked up at the stars, and thought about travelers in distant countries and the stars they saw, and hoped I might always be so blest and happy as to be useful to someone in my small way.” To be a nameless scribe in a cell, copying lines as faithfully and beautifully as I can, is to receive a gift and multiply it.
Of course, we will often squander the fullness of time and space and chase shiny things. You may have gazed at a catalog of elegant timepieces or the filtered photographic narratives of somebody’s perfect ski trip and whispered to yourself, “Life goals!” Your secret is safe with me. I have loved many a stupid thing, so I know that Pieper speaks true when he reminds us that leisure “is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend, or a vacation.” And as we plot out a brand new year of crisp, blank calendar pages, the next weekend is not guaranteed.
Powers crumble, volcanoes explode. Hannibal rides in over the mountains. Tranquility is both rare and tenuous. What therefore must we be about while the sun is shining? Even as we eagerly await a second Advent, what is our responsibility in these periods of grace?
Not to let anything paralyze us, whether guilt or endless practical tasks or the entrancing tunes of pipers. It may be that the telecommuters and the job sharers and the homeschool parents will be the monastics of this generation, seizing the moments granted to take up the old torches. Even as I sit down to a pile of books and a keyboard, fueled by a fresh pot of coffee, my husband has to claw and scratch out the briefest moment to fall asleep over the same chapter every night. We are lucky and few, and knowing this, I commit the quiet moments of a new year to worthy things. Let’s hone our arts and fill our minds and pour out praise on paper and canvas. Let’s fill the air with song to build and preserve what cannot last in tribute and testimony to what one day will never fade.