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Pieper on Festivity


Josef Pieper has a robust definition of festivity; he sees beyond the mere activity and memorials that commonly define our celebrations. Although, this should come as no surprise. Pieper was, after all, a philosopher in the Thomist tradition; meaning he saw a particular value in Being (i.e. an ontological emphasis regarding the created world). As I have recently celebrated my birthday, I found his words on this matter particularly timely. Here is an excerpt from Josef Pieper: An Anthology (Ignatius, 1989):

The antithesis between holiday and workday, or more precisely, the concept of a day of rest, tells us something further about the essence of festivity. The day of rest is not just a neutral interval inserted as a link in the chain of workaday life. It entails loss of utilitarian profit. In voluntarily keeping the holiday, men renounce the yield of a day’s labor. This renunciation has from time immemorial been regarded as an essential element of festivity. A definite span of usable time is made, as the ancient Romans understood it, “the exclusive property of the gods”. As the animal for sacrifice was taken from the herd, so a piece of available time was expressly withdrawn from utility. The day of rest, then, meant not only that no work was done, but also that an offering was being made of the yield of labor. It is not merely that the time is not gainfully used; the offering is in the nature of sacrifice, and therefore the diametric opposite of utility…

Such an act of rennunciation and sacrificial offering, however, cannot be imagined as being performed at random. The talk of “valuable working time” is, after all, not just talk; something utterly real is involved. Why should anyone decide to sacrifice this precious article without sufficient reason? If we probe a little more insistently for a reason, we find a curious analogy to the other, the contemplative aspect of the day of rest, of which we have already spoken. The achievement of contemplation, since it is the seeing, the intuition of the beloved object, presupposes a specific nonintellectual, direct, and existential relation to reality, an existential concord of man with the world and with himself. Precisely in the same way, the act of freely giving oneself cannot take place unless it likewise grows from the root of a comprehensive affirmation – for which no other term can be found than “love”… There is no other word that so precisely denotes what is at issue.

We do not renounce things, then, except for love… Joy is an expression of love. One who loves nothing and nobody cannot possibly rejoice, no matter how desperately he craves joy. Joy is the response of  a lover receiving what he loves…

The inner structure of real festivity has been stated in the clearest and tersest possible fashion by Chrysostom; ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas, “where love rejoices, there is festivity”.

It is an almost equally hopeless simplification to imagine that mere ideas can be the occasion for real festivals. Something more is needed, something of another order. The celebrant himself must have shared in a distinctly real experience. When Easter is declared a festival of “immortality”, it is scarcely surprising that no response is forthcoming – not to speak of such fantastic proposals as those of Auguste Comte, whose reformed calendar established festivals of Humanity, Paternity, and even Domesticity. Not even the idea of freedom can inspire people with a spirit of festivity, though the celebration of liberation might – assuming that the event, though possibly belonging to a distant past, still has compelling contemporary force. Memorial days are not in themselves festival days. Strictly speaking, the past cannot be celebrated festively unless the celebrant community still draws glory and exultation from the past, not merely as reflected history, but by virtue of a historical reality still operative in the present. If the Incarnation of God is no longer understood as an event that directly concerns the present lives of men, it becomes impossible, even absurd, to celebrate Christmas festively.

Perhaps this explains the lack of real festivals in our society, and even the loss of festivity associated with the Feast days of our Church. Sure, there are a few instances of real festivity around, but most occasions for such joy seem hopelessly manufactured. It is no wonder that as we have lost an ongoing incarnational sense of history, we have also lost the real meaning of festivity.


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