I recently read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. It had been on my list for a while, and it’s one of those rich classics that immediately gets you asking yourself, why did it take me so long to read this?! I regularly find myself considering the implications of his central theme: we are made to be contemplative beings, people poised in a posture of wonder as we continually ponder God and ultimate reality—the most real, most essential things. In short, he describes “leisure” as the space that we cultivate—physical, mental, spiritual—to live in a way that allows such ongoing contemplation and wonder.
In considering these thoughts, it is apparent to me how totally opposed life in the modern world is to this posture of contemplation. Our greater American culture is one of consumption; we consume products and people in an effort to ever increase our position in society to consume to a greater extent. Work and busy activity is unending, and true leisure is scarce. We live in a world that makes it hard to establish the space necessary to experience wonder; and if we do occasionally pivot to a contemplative stance, it is something that seems impossible to maintain. So often, this cultural description is the same for Catholics and other Christians, who have to actively reject the culture of consumerism and intentionally foster contemplative lives.
Pieper describes what is required in order to live in wonder. He says, “The really human thing is to see the stars above the roof, to preserve our apprehension of the universality of things in the midst of the habits of daily life, and to see ‘the world’ above and beyond our immediate environment” (p. 122). This means that we have to find a way of living in the world that does not interfere with our contemplative stance, with our ability to “apprehend” the universal things of greatest importance to us as human beings.
We need to be people that marvel at truth, beauty and goodness as we live in each moment of life and accomplish daily tasks. We must experience wonder not in spite of the experiences of everyday life and the world around us, but because of how we have positioned ourselves within the world and within those experiences. Pieper says that “the deeper aspects of reality are apprehended in the ordinary things of everyday life and not in a sphere cut off and segregated from it…” (p. 129).
With that in mind, have we positioned ourselves well? Are we able to live in a state that cultivates wonder, to take a contemplative stance? Can we say that we have set ourselves up to apprehend truth, beauty and goodness in all of the moments of our day?
Or, have we failed to intentionally choose to be contemplative beings? Have we drifted with the current of our consumer culture, feeling the constant drive to accumulate and become more, rather than the freedom to bask in the leisurely rest of wonder—a wonder that only grows the more we saturate ourselves in it?
I would offer a quick examination for assessing how well we are doing at living in wonder:
- Where do we have silence? Where can it be expanded?
- What are the sources of noise throughout our day that quench a contemplative heart?
- What are distractions or oppositions to wonder? How could we remove them?
- In what relationships are we invested, and do we have significant ones that spur us on to the contemplative life? Or do they make us feel that we need to acquire and become more?
- What do we love? What we love we will worship. Are there inferior things that are stealing our sense of wonder?
These questions may help us start to assess the kind of lives we are living and what changes will need to take place for us to live in wonder. The more that we learn about God and the world he created the more we are aware of how little we actually know, which gets to the point of wonder, the point of a contemplative life. The end of wonder and contemplation is not the discovery of all the answers and the resolution of mysteries—quite the opposite. Living in wonder provides the constant reminder that we are finite, and God is infinite; that we can do so little, and He hung the stars. Wonder leads to love.