Surfing the Internet this time of year, a Christian reader will frequently stumble upon pious recommendations that start with, “As the retail world begins to celebrate the holidays prematurely and in entirely commercial ways, Christians must wait patiently and remember the reason for the Season”. While this is certainly true, I cannot help but think that a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to celebrate a feast will take hold in our souls if we were only to dig deeper. Neo-Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper gives some guidance in this regard. He begins his book, “In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity”, with the premise:
Certain things can be adequately discussed only if at the same time we speak of the whole of the world and of life. If we are not ready to do that, we give up all claim to saying anything significant.
As a philosophy major, I’ve noticed that the minute I mention philosophy, most people retort with, “Oh, philosophy is over my head”, or “Yeah, I remember taking a philosophy class my freshman year, and none of it made sense or helped me to get a job”. Unpleasant college memories aside, the wonderful thing about Josef Pieper’s writings is that they are entirely accessible and applicable to everyday life, while remaining totally rooted in traditional philosophical concepts. Contemplation, leisure, art and virtue are common themes in his writings and Pieper’s understanding of the value of the contemplative life of the soul is essential to an appreciation of his theory of festivity.
Hearing the term “contemplative life”, most assume that Pieper is referring to nuns and monks in austere cells; he is not. To speak of a philosophical idea such as contemplation does not necessarily mean speaking theologically or mystically, in spite of the fact that all good philosophy ends in theology. To discuss contemplation on a philosophical level means we are speaking on a natural level through the light of reason. Furthermore, to speak on a natural level is not to assume we are speaking on a wholly material level, either. If you think of man as a whole being, it must be recognized that he has an immaterial capacity and activity, namely, that of his intellect. Man sees objects in the world that are material, yet these objects take on an immaterial mode when he beholds them in his mind’s eye, the entirety of which cannot be simply reduced to chemical reactions in the brain.
So you’re probably asking, “What does man’s intellect have to do with contemplation and feast days?” Drawing from the writings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Pieper argues that the key to man’s ultimate happiness and perfection resides in his intellect, specifically, the act of his intellect whereby he knows the highest Good, the bonum universale. Contemplation is none other than this act wherein man steadily beholds the highest Good! Through contemplation, God and man become present to each other, and in this presence, there is a union between the knower and the Known. Pieper states,
The traditional name for the utmost perfection to which man may attain, the fulfillment of his being, is visio beatifica, the ‘seeing that confers bliss.’ This is to say that the highest intensification of life, the absolutely perfect activity, the final stilling of all volition, and the partaking of the utmost fullness that life can offer, takes place as a kind of seeing; more precisely, that all this is achieved in seeing awareness of the divine ground of the universe.
The study of the nature of contemplation is most efficacious, and Pieper’s book, “Happiness and Contemplation” is both an excellent resource on this topic and, truth be told, is easier to read than Aristotle and Aquinas. However, for our purpose of understanding his theory of festivity, it is important to note what the contemplative act yields.
Consider how we respond when a loved one enters the room. Are we not happy to see those whom we love? Using different language, is it not true that we rejoice in the presence of the beloved? The same goes for God. When we take the time to know Him, there is no other response than pure love and joy because we are encountering Him who is Goodness, Itself. Herein lies the secret to true festivity! First is the seeing, and second the rejoicing. Pieper states, “Whenever anyone succeeds in bringing before his mind’s eye the hidden ground of everything that is, he succeeds to the same degree in performing an act that is meaningful in itself and has a ‘good time’”. This statement stands in extreme opposition to modern festivals, which have little or no substance behind them.
Consider the common phrase, “We don’t need a reason to party!” Pieper posits that this sentiment – “Plant a flower-decked pole in the middle of an open place, call the people together – and you have a fete!” – is utterly lacking. Sometimes, even well-meaning Christian festivals are reduced to a mere absence of work and gathering of a few people in order to “remember”. Per Pieper, much more is required of us: “To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole”. Note that the “world as a whole” is an idea that exists in the present. For Christians specifically, it is an awesome gift that the basis for all that exists is not a memory from the distant past (“the world as it was”), but rather a reality that is ongoing and present to us now. We feast because we know God exists now, and because He, as our Creator, is working out our salvation in the present moment. With this understanding of feasts, it is easy to see how the Eucharist, in which Christ is made present to us, is the most festive of all feasts. At Mass, our salvation unfolds before our very eyes!
Reconsider the call to “remember the reason for the Season”. If the reason truly is more than a vacation day or a remembrance, imagine how different our festivals would and should appear. For certain, the tone and mood of our Christmas parties would be transformed if they were an outpouring of joy from a current encounter with the whole of reality, made possible through a contemplative effort. So, as the holidays approach and the shopping increases, challenge yourself to spend more time in the presence of God: at home in prayer, in Eucharistic Adoration, in silence, and at most importantly, at Mass. The festive result might surprise you!