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Hindu altar, Kanchipuram India, 2008

Blue Arabesque, by Patricia Hampl, is a book-long meditation and memoir that starts with her deep and sudden connection to a painting by Matisse hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing not as an artist but as a thoughtful wisdom seeker, Hampl describes a conversation she has with a 60 year old nun who has lived in a monastery cell since she was 19. When asked if she could name the core of the contemplative life, the nun gives her a one word answer without hesitation: Leisure.

I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Hampl’s description of the “this” in the nun’s answer is “the kind of work that requires abdication from time’s industrial purpose.”

Is there any other nation that has put time to industrial purpose with the fervor of this one? A word that is loaded with subtextual contempt, “leisure” is rarely offered up as the core requirement for anything valued in our bottom line, materialistic, time-managed, wired world. Contemplation, and the leisure to have it, are almost considered illicit, wasteful, indulgent.

Hampl later refers to our lifestyle as a “raid on ease,” a phrase that epitomizes the feeling of being under siege to do more of everything, and to do it faster and better. In her deep connection to the painting by Matisse, she is reminded that “the birthright of the uninterrupted gaze” has been lost.

Maybe that has been the point, even the project, of modernity: to abandon the gaze, to give over to the glimpse.

That’s not a trade off I’m wiling to make.