Faith, Intellectual Life, and the Subversion of Busyness

Upon returning from Collegium in 2004, I wanted to have a little bit of Collegium all year long and I wanted any interested colleagues to have the opportunity to experience a little Collegium. Karen Eifler (a UP colleague, Collegium mentor, and Board member) and I worked together, and a Faith and Intellectual Life Discussion Group [FILDG] was born.

Karen and I set down some ground rules that would allow us to be inclusive. First, this had to be a respite, not another commitment for people. We keep our readings relatively short and relatively easy — no disciplinary specialization is needed. We read articles from Commonweal and America, from secular magazines like The Atlantic, and we read the occasional book chapter (at our first meeting this fall we will read a chapter of Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity and Michael J. Himes’s, “Finding God in All Things”). We meet twice a semester. We always serve hearty refreshments (including wine), thanks to the modest annual budget of $250 from the Provost. Our meetings are always on a Friday at 3:30, to end out the week and also at a time when there are the fewest class schedule conflicts. Attendance has consistently been pretty representative of the whole campus for our four years of existence. Key to our inclusivity, is that our readings are not necessarily Catholic or even religious (see the Martha Nussbaum reading mentioned above), but they all relate in some way to our common purpose as educators at a Catholic and Holy Cross university with a passion for the intellectual life and an openness to faith.

One theme that emerged in our meetings gives some idea of the sort of discussions we have had. “Quitting the Paint Factory: On the Virtues of Idleness” by Mark Slouka (Harper’s Magazine, November 2004, pp. 57-65) is an extended argument against busyness, against the Ant of “Ant and Grasshopper” fame. The fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper has had a huge impact on my life. I heeded its warning. For a number of years my New Year’s resolution was “I will work harder.” Finally, I came to see that as a soul-killing mistake (though it did help me to get my dissertation done in a timely fashion!), much as Slouka does. But, our group wondered, what is a busy academic to do? One has classes to teach, committees to serve on, publishing to do, tenure to earn, always more commit­ments to keep us busy, too busy.

While outsiders perceive the academic life as a life off the treadmill, many of us in academia recognize ourselves as being on a fast moving treadmill that differs only from the nonacademic one in that we can choose which twenty hours a day we work, as the old joke goes. Slouka is particularly concerned that too much busyness does not allow time for the reflection, reading, and thoughtful conversation necessary to democracy. Members of our group, while finding this an important concern, were also concerned about the lack of balance in our lives with respect to the time needed for contemplation, for prayer, for family and relationships, and for care for the environment and the self. Some of us wondered if our only option was to “quit the paint factory,” a reference to Sherwood Anderson, chief owner and general manager of a paint factory who in 1912 at the age of thirty-six was well on his way to becoming “a business man,” but who saw what he was doing as absurd and one day left abruptly. He later wrote that what America needed was people who “at any physical cost to themselves and others would agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.” (p. 63).

All of us had entered the academy because of a passion – for philosophy or literature or history or engineering or economics. Yet now here we were, often unable to spend adequate time pursuing the passions that led us here, and also not finding time for other aspects of life. Slouka’s words resonated with us: “We have no time for our friends or our families, no time to think or to make a meal. We’re moving product, while the soul drowns like a cat in a well” (58).

In the academy we aren’t exactly moving product, yet how many of our publications feel that way? How many of our committee reports? How much of our grading? We don’t want it to be that way. We aren’t at just any institution – we are at a Catholic institution, where the soul should be valued more than busyness. Idleness allows us “time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life…its due” (58). Busyness is the enemy of intellectual life, of faith, of thought. Idleness is necessary to all these things. Slouka warns us that we are part of a cult of busyness and that we foster it in each other (could you say that you plan to “do nothing” this summer?). Academics seem to feel that we should always be working. We need to fight this tendency if we are to develop the virtues necessary for democracy, necessary for living a Christian life, necessary for engaging in reflection, for finding God in all things, for caring for the environment and spending time doing nothing in particular with our children instead of scheduling “quality time” activities.

Joanna Ziegler offers us a way to engage in a subversion of busyness in her essay “Practice Makes Reception: the Role of Contemplative Ritual in Approaching Art” (in As Leaven in the World, Thomas M. Landy, ed. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed and Ward, 2001). Ziegler describes the discipline of daily practice as leading us deeper into ourselves and into our relation with the transcendent. In the Benedictine tradition, daily practice is a form of prayer. Medieval nuns, such as the Beguines, famous for making intricate lace, “kept busy” and engaged in contemplative prayer at one and the same time through their practice. “Making is therefore intimately intertwined with seeing and feeling: hand, eyes, and heart as the vehicles and the ends of prayer” (37). Ziegler asks “Might there not be intrinsic value in work, defined this way then, not as a reference to ourselves (as self-promotion or self-gratification) but as a way to create a time for contemplation and a body that is ready for the physical de­mands of contemplation”(37)?

This certainly turns busyness on its head! To take busyness and turn it into contemplative practice – talk about subversive! At the same time, however, such practices take time. To use this subversive approach to busyness, we would have to find a way to turn some of our current busy work into contemplative activity. What a challenge! What in our own lives could we transform in this way? We all thought about ways in which we could carve out contemplative rituals for ourselves, or ways that we could turn something we already do into such a practice, like the Beguines making their lace. Of course, the harried lives so many of us lead include things that would not lend themselves to such transformation. Nonetheless, we were challenged to think of such things. We were challenged to think of ways to subvert our busyness into something altogether different.

Of course the FILDG itself has been an example of the subversion of busyness. The group decides on further readings, everything is on electronic reserve, there are no annual assessment reports due on the project, just a handwritten sincere thank you card to the Provost to ensure another year of funding – it provides four oases each year for us all to play with ideas and re-connect with our minds, hearts and one another, very much in the tradition of Collegium.