Keep Your Eyes Wide Open

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:3)

Carl Bloch, “Christ and Child,” 1873
Carl Bloch, “Christ and Child,” 1873 (photo: Public Domain)

“Nothing is more beautiful than to begin.” So says Cesare Pavese, an Italian poet whose very name seems almost like a poem. “The only joy,” he adds, “is to begin. It is beautiful to live because to live is to begin, always, and in every instant.”

But suppose one does not wish to begin? What then? Can one simply stay in bed? Post a sign telling people to stay away? Is that all right to do? I mean, if there’s no joy in beginning, why should one be expected, much less enjoined, ever having to begin at all? Just go back to bed.

In fact, there’s a wonderful Spanish proverb that would appear to approve the practice. “How beautiful it is to do nothing,” it urges. “And then to rest afterward.” Excellent advice, I’d say. Isn’t there a scripture tag somewhere to shore up the claim? There certainly is. Psalm 46, which gives solemn, canonical sanction for doing nothing. “Be still,” it says, "and know that I am God.” 

Such a salutary reminder of the two great axioms of the spiritual life, too. Not only that there is a God but, thank heaven, he’s not you or me. What good news that is since it means there’s no competition between God and us. Who can possibly equal, much less exceed, the work of an omnipotent and omnicompetent God? Up against the Almighty, we haven’t got a chance. So, let him look after things and leave the rest of us to relax and take it easy. Let go and let God, right?

Yes, but then there’s this other and very different piece of advice, which invariably appears the moment you leave the land of the siesta and arrive, say, in a place called Germany. Where in the strictest Teutonic terms you are told to get busy and work as if you were God. Why is that? Because, by doing nothing, you become the devil’s workshop, who loves to prey upon the idle and the indolent. Besides, isn’t industry the enemy of melancholy? 

Armed with copybook maxims like these, maybe it’s time to get out of bed. Stop taking naps, in other words. In fact, wasn’t that the advice Pope St. John Paul II gave his handlers when, once too often, they suggested he lie down and rest? “We shall have all eternity in which to rest,” he told them.

Do you see the contrast I’ve struck between the two sets of statements? Which is more true? More desirable? Keeping busy, or taking a nap? Are we to live for the sake of the work life equips us to do? Or do we prefer Aristotle’s position, which, for all the sobriety of the Stagirite, is wholly on the side of play? “We are to work,” he insisted, “in order to be at leisure.” 

Put me down as an Aristotelian. The company’s certainly better. After all, it includes most of my students. Ah, the sweet solipsism of youth, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once described the state in which so many young peoples’ lives are steeped. Who would not want to trade toil and trouble for some of that? But is that really what leisure is about? There must be some sleight-of-hand going on here, because no honest solipsist could survive more than two minutes of leisure. 

So, what is leisure? Or more to the point, what is it not? It is certainly not work, the constant exercise of which threatens to turn one into a mindless machine. “You must labor like Hercules,” exhorted Thomas Carlyle, for whom no higher specimen of humanity could be imagined than that of the workaholic. As if only by doing the hardest job around would you be qualifed for achieving the highest good. That way lies madness.

But then, leisure is not a matter of taking a nap, either never mind the dolts who do so in classrooms all over the world. In what then does it consist? How about … Play … Prayer … Contemplation … Celebration?

“A condition of complete simplicity,” T.S. Eliot has called it, “costing not less than everything.” It is really a matter of knowing how to waste time prodigiously, as some wag once put it. An art form, I’d say, which young children appear to have mastered. And with infuriatingly effortless ease, I might add. Like Michael Jordan sinking all those baskets. Or, if the example isn’t too antique, Ted Williams hitting all those home runs. 

But also old men. So long, that is, as they can keep on playing baseball. The only sport, I am told, not governed by the clock; it alone has escaped the tyranny of time. 

Let the sportswriter Roger Angell explain that one to you. “Since baseball time is measured only in outs,” he writes, “all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” 

What we need to make it happen, then, to allow leisure to take hold, is to enter the world of the child, which is a place of rapture, of sheer receptivity before the real, before the great Banquet of Being at which we’ve all been invited to dine. Chesterton speaks of the special “gravity that dwells in the eyes of a baby three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe,” he assures us, which is an astonishment we all need to acquire. There where the young of heart are especially welcome, where joy and wonderment overflow. Filled with a sense of childlike expectancy, they evince an almost endless capacity to marvel and take delight. They are like Mary, the Eternal Child, who, says Bernanos, is “younger than sin.” 

How does one get to be that young? There is only one way and those who choose to go that way will not be disappointed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). And who exactly are the poor? They are the ones, says Luigi Giussani, “who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess, so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possessions.” In other words, they are the ones wholly and wonderfully rooted in the real, who hunger and thirst only for what is true.

“The Lord gave us an example,” he tells us, “a paradigm of this attitude of love for the truth: 

I assure you, unless you change and become like little
children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.

What is it, then, about little children that keeps them so young, indeed, the thing that so endears them to God? It is simply this, says Giussani, and it is everything: “Children have their eyes wide open.”

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