Yesterday as world economic markets collapsed and London was set ablaze by criminals, the Church marked the Feast of the great Spanish religious founder St. Dominic de Guzmán (117-1221). I happened to be home sick, so I could watch events unfold on the news, but I also had the time to do a bit of reading about St. Dominic. It struck me how so much of what we see happening in our society has to do with the idea that life should be as effortless as possible, and how much St. Dominic himself abhorred the notion of idling about and doing nothing.
When I was little, and suffered from the usual debilitating range of childhood maladies from asthma to flu to chicken pox, I often found that the drawings I produced during my convalescence were rather better than those I produced in the bloom of good health. I have never quite figured out exactly why, but it seemed that when I was suffering a bit, the end product of my creative efforts tended to be a bit more accomplished. So with my having been ill with some sort of cold-flu bug for the past several days, past experience would suggest an outpouring of creativity on my part, and a return to the blogosphere with copious amounts of written material to show for my time off. Unfortunately, when one gets older, the same does not always hold true as in one’s youth.
Despite having had several days lounging about in various states of consciousness over the past several days, I felt no creative impulse – no desire to write meaningful, insight-filled blog posts that would touch even the most hardened of hearts. Instead, I fretted over how my symptoms were preventing me from doing what I wanted to do, and worried about my law practice, and whether my secretary could cope in my absence [N.B. she could, and did – in spades.] In other words, I wanted to go to back to work.
The moment when one realizes that one would rather be at work than in a kind of involuntary confinement is a sure and sobering sign that one is no longer young. As St. Paul himself describes it: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (1 Corinthians 11:13) Going on holiday is one thing, but when you are ill, or if there is an inch of snow on the ground and the entire city screeches, inexplicably, to a halt for several consecutive days, watching television and shuffling about in various states of deshabille becomes rather old rather quickly.
This is not to say that, were I to win a substantial lottery prize tomorrow which would allow me to not have to work for a living, that I would reject such an opportunity. Rather, when the regularity of one’s income is no longer in question, one can work at things which may be lesser-paid, or not at all paid, but which are meaningful. And after a longish period of travel to places that I long to visit – such as Stockholm, Oslo, St. Petersburg, etc. – I would settle very happily into doing some sort of unpaid or low-paid work on matters important to me.
Yet this in itself is also a sign that one is no longer, mentally, a child. The dream of winning the lottery, or having a fabulously wealthy relative leave you their fortune, is one that immediately engenders thoughts of perpetual leisure. However the adult realizes that doing nothing whatsoever – no work on behalf of church, charity, or cause – is ultimately irresponsible and childish. If you are financially secure, that is no reason that you may take the rest of your life as nothing but a series of pleasures to be enjoyed at your choosing.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, yesterday was the Feast of St. Dominic – one of my patron saints and also one of my favorite saints for as long as I can remember. His words seemed particularly appropriate in reflecting on why it was that I felt it important to return to work as soon as possible. He told his followers that he was anxious to prevent them from falling into idleness, “because it is the mortal enemy of the soul, and the mother and nurse of every vice.” Granted, not all of us are called to the consecrated life, but his observation nevertheless rings true for all of us, whatever state of life in which we find ourselves.
For it appears to this scrivener that the indulgence in selfishness, which has brought Western civilization to the brink of economic, moral, and biological collapse, is largely a result of too many people having too much time on their hands with which to come up with mischief, or in which to allow mischief to overtake them. Rioters and looters in London, politicians spending beyond their means in America, “indignant” people whining and turning public squares into cesspools in Barcelona, or throwing bricks at policemen in Athens, all seem to have come under the false impression that the world “owes” them a living. It does not.
St. Dominic noted that the desire to do evil “does not easily master those usefully occupied. The Lord decreed that in the sweat of his brow should man eat bread, and the apostle that he who would not work neither should he eat. Also the prophet has said, ‘Because thou eatest of the fruit of thy hands it shall be well with thee, and happy shalt thou be.’ ” If the great Spaniard had told this to people who feel that they should be able to retire with full pensions at the age of 50, or that they are owed a good-paying job because they attended a university – or indeed, merely because they happen to exist, I suspect he would have been a martyr in addition to being the founder of the Dominican Order.
Having a holiday marked by a period of idleness is a wonderful thing. It allows us to choose to take some time to relax and to recuperate, giving the mind and body a break from what we are called to do, which is to work – work for ourselves, for our families, for our community, for our society. The idleness of illness, when it arises, is frustrating for the adult because it prevents him from doing what he knows he needs to do. However idleness, whether one is rich or poor or somewhere inbetween, is not a state of life to be pursued, nor supported by governments, institutions, or individuals. St. Dominic understood this, and his words ought to be more closely considered by us today.