The season of Lent is superimposed upon the life of work that we already lead, but here, more than ever, the pressing need is for silence, renunciation, and the leisure of deep work in prayer and spiritual reflection, achieved without deadlines or anxiety.
Back before the students returned to Wyoming Catholic College this semester, I bought a book called Deep Work in the interest of improving my use of time (a concern I share with nearly everyone, it seems). Its disconcertingly young author, Cal Newport, specializes in finding ways to ensure that people in the workplace have enough time for the close, attentive work that produces the best results. The basic principle is simple: learn to set aside large blocks of time (“time-blocking”) when you can focus on one important thing, a creative concentration that he calls “deep work.”
A decade or so ago, everyone was being urged to multitask, as though our minds, like our laptops, were capable of running several applications at once. Recently, everyone admits that most people are perfectly incapable of doing several things at once—or at least, doing them well. As for Deep Work, didn’t we already know that we need large blocks of uninterrupted time to get anything important done? Of course, but we live in an age when we need studies to tell us to eat our vegetables or get enough sleep. The very phrase “deep work” sounded the right note before I even ordered the book, and I would not have bought it at all had I not already known what Newport lays out—that for most people “being at work” usually means having the intention to get something done while also feeling responsible for answering emails, texts, tweets, and phone calls and also being available for meetings. We live in the most distracted era of human history to date, as though being connected—I think of photographs of telephone operators from the 1920s—were the pinnacle toward which human consciousness has always aspired. Time at work can seep away into a dozen different things, none of them what we actually intended to do.
Obvious as it might seem, Newport has to argue that this condition of constant distraction is not the most productive one. In fact, he has to bring to bear neurological evidence for the efficacy of deep work. The good of his book is that it gives organizations and managers a plausible, economically valid reason to let people schedule periods of intense concentration instead of insisting that they be constantly connected and available to everyone for anything. Newport’s argument for deep work is also full of practical suggestions and useful techniques that put hard boundaries on the workday and open up workfree time that allows home to be home, uninterrupted by constant checking of texts and emails from the office.
Nevertheless, what he conjures up, whether he means to or not, is what Josef Pieper calls the world of “total work,” in which even time at home with family or on vacation really serves work above all. The felt need for deep work should really be understood as a longing for leisure in the profoundly primary sense that Pieper proposes in Leisure, the Basis of Culture, which all of our students read. Newport’s recommendations could easily apply to prayer, and I think Newport knows it. He mentions A.D. Sertillanges, O.P., and his masterpiece, The Intellectual Life, first published in 1920.
As a Dominican, Sertillanges did most of his work on the moral theory of St. Thomas Aquinas, but surely his biggest impact came through this wise little book. So striking is his argument, in fact, that it becomes a guide to a deeper Lent:
Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.
The intellectual is not self-begotten; he is the son of the Idea, of the Truth, of the creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in His creation. When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step-by-step; he does not follow his own vain fancy.
Simply reading this passage calms the soul. This is the time of year set aside by the Church for our spiritual renewal through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which means enough detachment from the everyday to follow the Word instead of our own ambitions. The season of Lent is superimposed upon the life of work that we already lead, but here, more than ever, the pressing need is for silence, renunciation, and the leisure of deep work in prayer and spiritual reflection, achieved without deadlines or anxiety. What might prayer become “unburdened by desire and self-will,” when it moves beyond petition and truly opens to the promise of holy time?
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Allegory of the Catholic Faith” (c. 1670-1672) by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.