Continuing our thoughts on how to experientially grasp or get a hold of this distinction between the transcendent and the practical in life, we will look at Josef Pieper’s next three examples of a transcendent perspective: love, death, and beauty. As mentioned, this is from his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture.
(4) Love is certainly an experience that breaks through and revises our carefully laid out plans for ourselves. It gives us new priorities and opens up new levels of our own life and being. To quote a beautiful section from Von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love:
In every intense and complete love a person undergoes a certain awakening. I begin to live more authentically; a new dimension in my personal existence discloses itself and I am liberated from the captivity of habits, from the bonds of convention, from dependence on the opinions of others, from the social image have of myself. My true self breaks through in love; by loving and giving myself in love I am able to receive as a gift my better and more authentic self.
By loving I become more beautiful, and this precisely through the special commitment and self-gift which is proper to love, and also through a certain humility. In loving, I grow in humility because love is a gift and because I experience myself being “seized” by something that is greater than myself.
Before I had relied on my own strength and my ideal had been to live life out of my own power without any dependence on anyone else, but now all of this collapses when I love. I experience my creaturehood, and in a blissful way, for I experience that the incomparably precious thing which I have received is a pure gift. Above all, I approach the person whom I love with a humility that I have not known before. In the presence of the beloved person I am prepared to take off the armor with which I approach all other people, the armor of self-assertion and latent rivalry....
[E]very deep and intense love goes hand in hand with becoming more awakened and with becoming liberated from the many shackles of everyday life. Every great love makes a person both more magnanimous and more humble; and these values are all moral values. (pp. 312-13)
Thus, I like to tell my students, you may arrive on campus as a freshman with the clear intention of becoming a doctor and, knowing that this will take the next 10 years, you may have decided—and strictly imposed on yourself (perhaps also with your parents approval)—that this means NO ROMANCE for the coming decade. You may tell yourself, “There will be time enough for that after I finish my studies!” Yet this practical plan may be completely upset during the first week of freshman orientation if you meet the right person and begin to deeply and genuinely fall in love—a brand new perspective breaking through all the practical calculations!
(5) Another experiential example of a transcendent perspective impacting and informing everyday practical concerns involves the challenge of death. What might seem to be overwhelming practical responsibilities that HAVE TO BE FACED and taken care of RIGHT NOW—there is no way to postpone them or get out of them—all sink to the periphery and are swept away in the face of the imminent death (of oneself or of a beloved person). Death puts practical responsibilities in a different light. So, I tell my students, if you have to do 4 term papers and study for 5 final exams in the next 10 days and you shut everything else out in order to do so, fine—this shows admirable discipline. But if your mother or father suddenly takes deathly ill, all this end-of-the-semester rush is thrown into a different perspective—you leave it all (something you thought you couldn’t do) and rush home to be by the beloved person’s bedside. Or again, you can insist that your roommate stop bothering you so that you can study—again, admirable discipline. But if your roommate climbs out on the ledge and threatens to jump off the top floor of the dorm, you can’t just ask him to wait until you’ve finished studying your metaphysics. You have to drop other things and try to help him. We see here again how a transcendent perspective breaks through and informs the practical.
(6) As a final example, Pieper mentions beauty as a transforming and informing perspective on the practical view of things. Beauty and practicality can go together, of course. Indeed, this is the challenge of the architect, to bring these two into harmonious relationship, but they don’t automatically go together. It takes creative genius, so as not to end up with something workable but ugly. For example, in the 90’s, when Franciscan University decided to build a new fieldhouse (it ended up including a gymnasium, wellness center, and ability to be used for large academic and liturgical gatherings), we didn’t have a great deal of money at the time. Some Board members suggested just putting up a “Butler building,” i.e., a large, square, corrugated iron entity that would serve the functions desired. However, this would be the largest building on campus, would be situated in the center of campus, and would be ugly! Thankfully, other Board members, like Mr. Tom Monahan, insisted on something beautiful as well, though it would cost twice as much. We ended up not only with a functional gym, but with a beautiful structure expressing something of our Franciscan charism—with roof lines mirroring the way the town of Assisi sits on its hillside, with brown tones reminiscent of the Franciscan order, and—no doubt—the only gymnasium in the country having a bell tower (reflecting the liturgical use of the space). Beauty is a transcendent perspective meant not to replace but to inform the practical one.
It is always a danger, and all too easy, to just get lost in immediate practical affairs, but there is more to life than that—and the most important part of life. This is what philosophy, poetry, prayer, love, death, and beauty remind us of.