I have found it difficult to keep the Sabbath. During college, my work, classes, relationships, and job searching kept me busy and preoccupied with my planner and my list of tasks. If you told me to put my tasks aside and to be silent, I would grow restless and feel that my commitments would collapse on me.
The fall semester of my senior year, when I gave up trying to keep the Sabbath, one of my professors introduced me to an insightful passage in Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. Pieper’s insights helped me to realize how keeping the Sabbath is important.
We are busy, and many of us have “hyper-attention” and do too much such that we do not tend to contemplate or to concentrate. Instead of caring for our souls, we complete our tasks. Many of us allow meaningful exercises fall away, such as writing poetry, going to yoga class, journaling, sketching, pausing over poetry, or going on walks. Many of us multi-task among digital or physical worlds—listening to music while reading, checking Facebook or E-mail while writing an essay, eating while doing homework, texting while walking to class or during any interim moment of waiting.
Pieper instructed me not to hyper-attend to the many sensory stimuli around me, but rather to practice the “asceticism of perception.” This practice means periodically abstaining from sense stimuli in order to moderate the quality and quantity of stimuli we sense, especially in order to keep ourselves from being persons who take in stimuli merely for the sake of sensationalism rather than for perception and understanding. This insight could help those of us who feel driven by many tasks.
Pieper illustrates the problem of taking in senses for the sake of curiosity and sensationalism — seeing just to see rather than to “perceive reality.” This can cause us to create a false reality. For instance, when I watch a video, flip through a magazine, or walk through a shopping mall, a deluge of images and sounds say how my life could be and that if it were so, it would be better. These images and sounds can create a false reality — a simulacrum — of what life could and should be, such that I no longer perceive how reality truly is. I don’t see the goodness and worth of my Ugg boots when I could wear Anne Klein fashion boots.
As Pieper writes, “This disorder [of consuming too many vain sights and sounds] obstructs the original power of man to perceive reality.” Pieper suggests that instead, we should close ourselves from our senses — not constantly, but periodically — in order to “attain reality and truth.” Practicing “asceticism of perception” could allow us “to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape [ourselves] and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence.” When one closes oneself to “empty sights and sounds,” one can better know God by perceiving who He really is.
This has encouraged me not to do homework on Sundays. There are other ways we can fast from vain sights and sounds. For instance, we could ruminate over a poem, run outside without headphones, journal or write imaginatively, meditate on God’s Word to us, pray, fast from food or bad habits, or contact someone who has been on our mind. These are ways we can moderate the senses we consume and to listen to God. Most of us will always have tasks to do, but we need to learn to discipline ourselves to set them aside in order to perceive the reality of God and of His creation.
This piece originally appeared in the March 27 issue of The Wheaton Record.