If you do creative work, you should know Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. This week’s episode of The Habit Weekly is the first of a three-part series on this remarkable little book.

My cherry tomatoes are starting to play out after a good summer run. I put some work into my tomatoes: I prepared the soil, I planted, I weeded, I watered. Without that work, there would have been no tomatoes. But also, in no meaningful sense could I say that my work produced those tomatoes. Only God can make a tomato.

In Only the Lover Sings, Josef Pieper wrote,

One of the fundamental human experiences is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come about perhaps not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts. Rather, we will obtain them only only if we can accept them as free gifts.

Pieper was aiming even higher than cherry tomatoes when he spoke of the “truly great and uplifting things in life.” We’ll get to those things. But first I want to say this: in creative work, as in tomato-growing, even the fruits of your labor are free gifts.

I’m writing this on Labor Day, as good a day as any for reflecting on the value and nature of work. And for Pieper, the value of work depends on the truth that work cannot be its own goal or justification. Work is valuable insofar as it points to something beyond itself. You may be surprised to hear that, for Pieper, leisure is more meaningful than work. The very fact that you work for something is the clue: if you work toward a goal, the goal must be more important than the work.

So is work not meaningful? Piper answers,

Meaningful indeed! Yet not meaningful in itself. This precisely defines the concept of work: it has a practical purpose, it produces utilitarian goods, it contributes to the common useful wealth (and “useful” always means “good for something else”). To serve some other purpose is the essential characteristic of work.

Pieper speaks of the “idolizing of labor.” How, he asks, do we “resist convincingly the claims of a world absolutely defined by work”? Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, answered like a monk: in the end, the only activity that can be meaningful in itself is contemplation, the beholding of reality. I can’t decide how I feel about this idea that contemplation is the only activity that is meaningful in itself. But I do believe that if you don’t behold reality, you can’t very well expect any of your activity to be meaningful.

I’ll have more to say in next couple of weeks about beholding reality and how that vision relates to creative work. In the meantime, I’ll just point out that reality is something that you did not and cannot make. You can only receive it. Art-making and story-telling can be a way of receive reality for yourself, and helping others to receive it. (It can also be a way of avoiding reality, as Dr. Jennifer Holberg points out in this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast.)

If “an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence” is one precondition of meaningful activity, Pieper’s second precondition goes even further.

The second condition, in a nutshell, is this: the ability to celebrate a feast. What, then, is required to celebrate a feast? Obviously more than a day off from work. This requirement includes a man’s willing acceptance of the ultimate truth, in spite of the world’s riddles, even when this truth is beheld through the veil of our own tears; it includes man’s awareness of being in harmony with these fundamental realities and surrounded by them. To express such acceptance, such harmony, such unity in nonordinary ways—this has been called since time immemorial: to celebrate a feast.

The feast day doesn’t deny the reality of human sadness and suffering. Instead, it says that there are other realities, greater even than sorrow and suffering. And those realities will have their day. So, by all means, the artist must lament. The artist must accept the truth that we live amid riddles and tears. But also, the artist must accept larger, more ultimate truths than those. To quote Pieper again,

Only such a fundamental attitude of acceptance can create, within the flow of workdays, the liberal breathing space that allows us, oblivious of life’s more basic necessities, to do what is meaningful in itself.

You can’t make a life for yourself. You can’t make meaning. As I suggested earlier, you can’t even make a tomato. Of course, you have work to do; the truly great things in life don’t come without your efforts. But still (and especially when it comes to creative work), your work in large part is to create the conditions under which you can receive reality and offer it to others.

Next week: “Learning How to See Again”

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