In his book The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges warns us against being so caught up in study that we neglect our duties:
[S]tudy … is not always opportune; if it is not, the person who then pursues knowledge forgets his duty as a man, and what is to be said of the intellectual who is not a man? (p. 26)
It’s interesting to me that to Sertillanges, the man who forgets his duty becomes less of a man — or something other than a man. So his manhood is defined by his proper attention to duty.
What intrigued me were the examples he gave:
A country priest who devotes himself to his parishioners, a doctor who turns away from study to give help in urgent cases, a young man of good family who adopts a calling to help his people and in doing so has to turn his back on liberal studies are not profaning the gift that is in them, they are paying homage to the True which is one and the same Being with the Good. If they acted otherwise they would offend truth no less than virtue, since, indirectly, they would be setting living truth at variance with itself. (p. 26)
He speaks here, obviously, of men. But what if we rewrote this for moms who choose to pursue the intellectual life as well? Something like:
… a woman who turns away from study to nurse her sick children … is not profaning the gift that is in her, she is paying homage to the True …
It’s easy to think of Mother Culture as just one other thing we must do — a nonnegotiable imperative rather than a healthy habit. On the days when it doesn’t fit in, we beat ourselves up. Sometimes that sense of conviction is healthy. If it didn’t fit in because I wasted time, that’s a problem. But I’ve encountered moms berating themselves because they just couldn’t get it done after being up all night with a sick baby, or because they had high-maintenance company over, and to that I say: There is no guilt in this. You were doing your duty!
That’s the thing: to Sertillanges, the intellectual life is part and parcel of the pursuit of virtue, and to be virtuous is to do your duty. Sertillanges gives this rebuke:
One sees many men avid for knowledge who do not hesitate to sacrifice to it their strictest duties. They are not men of study, they are dilettanti. (p. 26)
This is why I think the 30-minute limit is so brilliant. I mean, yes, sometimes we need to read longer. I certainly have days when I’m in the middle of thinking through something and schedule a couple hours for extended reading and thinking. But as far as normal days, to read longer than thirty minutes would probably translate into not finishing my laundry or not getting dinner ready.
Thirty minutes is plenty of time to get a good chunk or reading done, and, most importantly, to glean some big thoughts worth chewing on as we go forth and fold our laundry. For some of us, it’s important to admit that it’s hard to move on to the next task. (For me, this is especially true if it’s a novel, which is why I pick up novels with fear and trembling — I have a hard time being moderate with novels!)
What duties might be crowded out? Meals and laundry come to mind — we are moms, after all, and so the motherly tasks rise first to our thoughts. But Sertillanges stops us and says:
[S]tudy must first of all leave room for worship, prayer, direct meditation on the things of God. (p. 28)
When you are up all night with a baby, make sure that the the first Book you pick up is the Bible. It’s okay to fall asleep while praying (your baby falls asleep in your arms, doesn’t he?), but do not forget to pray.
Study carried to such a point that we give up prayer and recollection, that we cease to read Holy Scripture, and the words of the saints and of great souls — study carried to the point of forgetting ourselves entirely, and of concentrating on the objects of study so that we neglect the Divine Dweller within us, is an abuse and a fool’s game. (p. 29)
Sadly, I have met a handful of women who get really caught up in Charlotte Mason research — to the point where they are not getting their school lessons done, nor are they engaging in worship, prayer, or Bible reading. While the cases I have encountered have to do with Charlotte Mason obsession, this can happen with anything. The point is that something — anything — that catches our fancy can be dangerous when our affection for it become disproportionate.
Don’t play the “fool’s game.” Setting a timer is probably the easiest way to get your house in order. A timer puts study time in its place by putting boundaries around it.
As Sertillanges said:
The order of the mind must correspond to the order of things. In the world of reality, everything rises toward the divine, everything depends on it, because everything springs from it. (p. 29)
Mother Culture is great — reading is great — but let us not neglect so great a salvation.
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