Learning How To See Again: A Lesson From Josef Pieper


One of the most influential books behind Visio Divina was Josef Pieper’s Only The Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. Josef Pieper was a 20th century Catholic German philosopher who wrote while drafted into Germany’s army during World War II and is credited for translating C.S Lewis’s Problem of Pain into German. Even though it’s a short little book (think: Jacques Philippe), it’s still a bit dense with that philosophical goodness. Essentially, Pieper urges us that we must see reality as it is in order to truly behold it, even when it’s gritty and raw. He writes how contemplation and art go hand in hand, but first we must learn to see again.

We wanted to break it down a bit for you and share why we were so inspired to write V I S I O while reading it.

Below are some of our favorite excerpts that did not make their way into V I S I O.

On contemplation

A particularly venerable form [of contemplation]…is religious meditation, the contemplative immersion of the self into the divine mysteries.

To contemplate means first of all to see - and not to think!

Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is.

Even the most intensive seeing and beholding may not yet be true contemplation. Rather, the ancient expression of the mystics applies here: ubi amor, ibi oculus - the eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of ‘seeing’ is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance!

On the ability to celebrate a feast

This requirement includes 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.

On seeing

Nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to the darkness.

The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!

The earliest statement, one hundred years before Plato, comes to us from the city of Athens, from Anaxagoras, who to the catechism-like question, ‘Why are you here on earth?’ replied, ‘To behold.’

On music

Music is one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world’s miranda, the things that make us wonder.

Music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul.

Music opens a path into the realm of silence.

On man

Man’s being is always dynamic; man is never just ‘there.’ Man ‘is’ insofar as he ‘becomes’ - not only in his physical reality, in growing, maturing, and eventually diminishing toward the end. In his spiritual reality, too, man is constantly moving on - he is existentially ‘becoming;’ he is ‘on the way.’ For man, to ‘be’ means ‘to be on the way’ - he cannot be in any other form; man is intrinsically a pilgrim, ‘not yet arrived,’ regardless of whether he is aware of this or not, whether he accepts it or not.

There are, indeed, large areas of reality in danger of being forgotten. And, of course, it is not up to the fine arts alone to counteract this danger that threatens the entire breadth and depth of human existence. Here we somehow sense the artist’s inner relationship to the priest, who is called, above all, to keep alive the remembrance of a face that our intuition just barely perceives behind all immediate and tangible reality - the face of the God-man, bearing the marks of a shameful execution. Incidentally, none other than Goethe declared that the artist should be seen ‘as someone called to be the custodian and eager herald of an avowed sacred reality.’