Labor Day has come and gone and, for better or worse, summer is now unofficially over. Schools across the nation are opening and here in New York, this week marks the first day of school for most.
I’ve always found it a bittersweet time. The relaxing, warm, unstructured (or less structured) days of summer give way to the excitement (and work) of a new school year. It’s a little bit like the feeling at the end of a long, happy vacation: you don’t want it to end, yet you know life here on earth isn’t meant to be a permanent vacation. There’s work to be done.
Yet as adults, it’s easy to get caught up in that work, whether it’s the professional work of our paying job, the work of raising a family, the work of volunteering, or even the work of a hobby like a sport or musical instrument. Our culture in the U.S. is work-centric, focused on results, and often driving us to be workaholics. There’s good and bad in that, yet one of the downsides (and there are many) of this culture is the marginalization of learning and study for leisure.
I, too, find myself so caught up in the responsibilities of family, work, and social commitments that carving out the time to read or learn something new each day can be tough. And with the advent of the smartphone and the proliferation of screen time, sitting down quietly with a book has lots of competition. I’ll admit, I don’t read nearly as much as I would like.
And I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, this challenge isn’t new, although it is certainly made worse by our technocratic society. Over 350 years ago, the French thinker, Blaise Pascal famously observed,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I agree with Pascal that if we had a more contemplative spirit and, in a sense, felt more comfortable in our own skin, the world would be a very different (and better) place.
Yet, why study for leisure? And what should one study? One simple reason is to fill one’s mind with the truth, with what’s good and beautiful. In a culture filled with fake news, rumors, gossip, and ugliness, it’s not easy to happen upon the true, the good, and the beautiful in the mainstream media, Hollywood, or social media. One has to seek it and a good way to start is by reading good books.
Of course one may ask oneself: how do I know what a good book is when there are so many choices? First, one cannot go wrong with the Classics of our Western Civilization. These great works may seem daunting to the uninitiated but they are certainly worth the effort to read and understand them. Some personal recommendations would be anything by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, St. Thomas More, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and many others.
For those interested in learning more about the Catholic faith specifically, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an excellent place to start. For a shorter treatment, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is also a wonderful resource. One cannot go wrong by reading the writings of the saints as well, but by talking with a priest or friend whose judgment you trust, one can learn of many excellent works that can teach you about the Catholic faith and spiritual life.
Recall the young Iñigo of Spain who loved military exercises, fame, power, and glory. According to one account, he was "a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed.” An illustrious military career ensued, yet when only 29 years old, he suffered a severe injury on the battlefield and needed to rest and recuperate, his career apparently over.
As an aside, one sometimes wonders what professional athletes do when injured for the rest of the season: how do they use their time off the field when rehabilitating themselves?
Back to our young Spanish soldier: he recuperated in a Catholic hospital where there were only two kinds of reading materials available: tales of worldly glory and military conquest, and Scripture and volumes of the lives of the saints. He gravitated toward the worldly books first, but felt what he called a desolation in his soul after reading these. Upon reading the scriptures and lives of the saints, he felt a consolation that pointed him to Christ.
This young, power-hungry womanizer converted and became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church: St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Reading good books can help make one a saint!
As you’ve gotten to know by reading this blog and newsletter, becoming a saint is what it’s all about. Here I echo the early twentieth century French novelist Léon Bloy, who reminds us:
“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
One of the means available to us at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Cohoes is a variety Adult Faith Formation offerings. More information coming soon, but Sunday mornings after Mass will soon include opportunities for learning and formation for both adults and children. Stay tuned for more details!
~ Chris Spellman