Tuesday, March 16, 2010


He who would study the scriptures must have much leisure. ~Sirach 38:24

For a few years now, a friend and I have engaged in an on-again, off-again debate over the question of why some people enter the laboring trades while others (as a matter of vocation) pursue what is sometimes called “the life of the mind” of philosophy, literature, and art. For neither of us was this a question of basic intelligence, but my friend thought it was primarily a matter of interest and aptitude – that the guy on the scaffold (for example) was unlikely to produce a work of poetry or philosophy because he simply didn’t have any interest in it. However, as I thought about it, it seemed that, historically at least, it has more to do with time and opportunity. That is to say that those who work in the various fields of “labor” have just as much intellectual potential (and potential interest) to produce a great poem, philosophical system, or work of art as anyone else – it’s just that, at the end of the day -- and over the course of a lifetime -- they’re too tired.

(Our conversations are essentially glorified college bull sessions, and we are probably both right, but here I will carelessly leave my friend’s side of the argument behind as I make my case.)

A survey of the history of literature and the arts demonstrates that the great works have been produced – to a disproportionate degree – by a) those wealthy enough to be free of the need to work, and b) those who accepted poverty in pursuit of their art. (A variation on these categories is the poor artist supported by the commission or patronage of the wealthy.) In each case, the result was, to put it simply, that they had time to read, write, compose, paint. This leaves the working man who – accidentally or on purpose – had committed himself to supplying his family with food and shelter by the only means at his disposal -- his physical labor -- and thus had to work so many hours in a day that he probably invented the phrase, “he was asleep before his head hit the pillow,” but was too tired to write it down. If he wasn’t poor, he would have been if he bought pen and ink and took time to cast his thoughts and dreams onto paper.

It goes without saying that there have always been exceptions, but this is the way it was, and -- in much of the world -- is. Its persistence down through the generations is the main theme of Thomas Gray's, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” written in 1768.

   Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
   Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
   Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
   Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

   But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
   Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
   Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
   And froze the genial current of the soul.

There are two other categories for our consideration and placement in this speculative scheme: The “gentleman farmer” and the clergyman. The gentleman farmer is a man of the soil and of the mind – he goes off to be educated and comes back to work the land. (I realize that this title originally had to do with one who was wealthy enough to have others do the work, but it has come to define one who understands the organic connection between hand-smarts and head-smarts.) Some of my best friends are gentlemen farmers. (How the rise of the modern middle class and a more accessible path to higher education alters my neat analysis is a subject for another essay.)

And clergymen?  I sometimes envy the Victorian stereotype of the rector as a “kept man,” pottering in his study, breaking for tea, then attending the parish flower show up at the manor-house. (This is an exaggeration of the Church of England's "freehold" system, in which the vicar essentially had ownership rights to his parish, and was, in a way, "lord of all he surveyed.") I have to say that the modern pastor’s job description is more like “the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions.” Yet I do not want to be disingenuous about (or give up on) the built-in need in this calling for what the Anglican Church refers to as “reflective ministry,” and what the Book of Sirach calls, simply, “leisure:” Time, that is, to study, read, and write. (See introductory line, above.)

We are discovering that, in a humane civilization, all occupations and professions ought to offer a measure of flexibility in the work schedule. (It was, after all, the pre-conversion Scrooge who told Bob Cratchitt, "Be here all the earlier next morning!") And studies show that flex-time even helps the bottom line. So rather than succumbing to the lure of workaholism (an illness), the pastor can model a healthy balance in his or her own life, and support such balance in the lives of members of the parish and the community. Gold, perhaps, has been the most pursued; but time the most valued resource after all.

John Donne, who delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit of St. Paul’s in London from 1621 till his death in 1631, also wrote volume after volume of religious (and love!) poetry during those years. R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000 after forty years as a rural vicar in the Church of Wales and who wrote thirty books of (Nobel-nominated) poetry in that time, said frankly, after he retired, that it was the “Anglican freehold” that allowed him time to write. I trust that the reflective hours in the Rev. Donne’s London townhouse and Father Thomas’ country parsonage also resulted in caring ministry, but the world is grateful to their parishioners for granting them the time.


R.S. Thomas d. 2000
John Donne d. 1631

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