Sunday, 6 August 2017

A medieval prescription for productivity, success and happiness

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The French use the word "nombrilism" in order to designate people who fail to see the big picture because they are focusing on their own navel ("ombril"); people who, instead of pursuing large goals, opt for thinking small and without system.

Of course, any attempt to achieve large goals by thinking small and without system is doomed to failure. There is no way that you can make major improvements by taking small, inconsistent steps. There is no way that you can turn your life around by means of little, uncoordinated tricks.

Some people find it impossible to accept that universal principles exist, and that they have always existed. In particular, the keys to productivity, success, and happiness have remained the same for centuries.

Universal principles

I am always reminded of this fact every time I take a tour of historical sites. Every time I look at vestiges of the past, the principles are always there, right before my eyes. Last week, while I was travelling through Spain, visiting medieval castles, churches, and monasteries, the Basilica of St Vincent in Avila (central Spain) made a deep impression on me.

Its construction started in the tenth century, but it took a hundred years before the building was finished. For this reason, the basilica bears witness to the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles. In addition, St Vincent's Basilica embodies the keys to productivity, success, and happiness.

Firstly, the basilica was built on solid rock, a decision that was not a coincidence, but the result of the events that, from the very beginning, led to the idea of putting up the building: In the third century AD, in the times of Emperor Dioclecian, Spain was a province of the Roman Empire, and following Dioclecian's orders, the local governor was carrying out a persecution of Christians.

Nonetheless, Roman legal procedure required that, when someone was accused of being a Christian, he had to be given the chance to recant his faith, and demonstrate his allegiance to the Emperor by making a sacrifice to ancient Roman deities such as Mars (the god of war) and Minerva (the goddess of wisdom).

That was exactly what happened to Vincent, a Spanish merchant who was known to be a devout Christian. Roman soldiers took him into custody, and required him to renounce his Christian faith. They told him that, if he refused to comply, he would be facing the death penalty.

While Vincent was in custody, he received a visit from his sisters, Sabina and Christeta. "You have to flee, Vincent," they urged him. "Otherwise, the soldiers will kill you." Vincent was reluctant to run away, but his sisters insisted. "We have paid off the guards, and we have brought horses. Come with us, and we will escape together."

Vincent and his sisters slipped away during the night, and used the horses to flee. However, the Roman soldiers began to chase them the next morning. Eventually, the soldiers captured Vincent and his sisters in Avila, tortured them, threw them off the city wall, and left their corpses lying on a rock at the bottom of a cliff. This is the rock upon which the basilica was built in the tenth century.

A solid foundation

If you visit St Vincent's Basilica in Avila today, you will still be able to see the rock. It stands in the crypt, right below the altar where the faithful have been celebrating mass for the last one thousand years. The rock provides the basilica with a clear purpose, a definite meaning, a solid foundation. Throughout the centuries, the rock has welcomed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, and seen the basilica flourish. It has helped transform brutality into benevolence, and confusion into structure.

Similarly, your productivity, success, and happiness are dependent on your ability to build upon solid foundations. Without a consistent philosophy, there is no way you can attain high productivity because you will simply not know what to do. Without a clear purpose, there is no way you can determine which path to follow because you will simply not know your destination.

For this reason, it puzzles me that unprincipled people spend so much time looking for productivity tricks and short-cuts to success. In a way, they are trying to build a basilica by piling up stones at random. They are trying to put up a building without having any idea of what it should look like. Such attempts always fail miserably. No wonder that such people feel immensely stressed.

Having a rational, integrated philosophy is a prerequisite to high productivity. You need to know your ultimate goal. You need to know your life's mission. You need to know what you want, and why you want it.

A well-designed structure

Secondly, you need to build a well-designed structure, which is something that requires consistent efforts. Do you know what you are trying to achieve in life? Can you ensure that the decisions you make today are in line with your long-term objectives?

As soon as the basilica was finished in the eleventh century, the Bishop of Avila ordered the construction of a cenotaph to house the remains of Vincent and his sisters. The cenotaph was built by a team of local artists, following the Bishop's instructions: "I want you to illustrate Vincent's story by means of twelve scenes made of small sculptures," asked the Bishop.

The sculptures, only thirty centimetres high, were placed on the sides of the cenotaph, and painted in blue, yellow, red, black, and white, making them look almost alive. Since few people in the Middle Ages were able to read, the cenotaph proved a perfect complement to the basilica.

The Bishop ordered to place the cenotaph inside the building, to the right of the main altar, so that pilgrims could walk around the cenotaph, admire its sculptures, and learn the details of St Vincent's life. Precisely as the Bishop expected, the combination of cenotaph and basilica proved a lasting success. Both creations share the same purpose, carry the same message, and appeal to the same audience. They enhance each other's beauty, meaning, and reputation.

Sticking to your chosen strategy is the second key to increasing your productivity, success, and happiness. Like the Bishop of Avila did when he ordered the cenotaph, you must ensure that your actions are consistent with your purpose. You need to make sure that your decisions are integrated, focused, and aligned with your goals. If you do that, they will enhance each other, and multiply your results.

A clean board

Thirdly, you need to keep a clean board by having the discipline to say "no" to distractions, temptations, and interruptions. You need to clear your path of obstacles, so that you can keep advancing towards your goals.

The habit of keeping a clean board can dramatically contribute to your productivity. Your commitment to staying on track day after day can enormously enhance your results, and increase your peace of mind.

Unsurprisingly, St Vincent's Basilica also shares this trait. Since the Middle Ages, its right and left corridors have been kept free of furniture, so that pilgrims can walk freely, admire the cenotaph, and pray unencumbered.

A beautiful medieval anecdote confirms this point: When Pedro Barco, a hermit famous for his piety and wisdom, died in the early twelve century, his neighbours could not agree where to bury him. Two villages were claiming the right to have him interred in their church.

After some discussion, the neighbours agreed to let a mule determine where the hermit should be buried. For this purpose, they placed the hermit's corpse on the mule's back, and let the mule go its way. "Wherever the mule takes him, that's where we will bury him," they convened, expecting the mule to head for one of the two villages.

Yet, to everyone' surprise, the mule took to the main road, covered all the way to Avila, arrived at St Vincent's Basilica, went through the portal, continued unencumbered through the right-side corridor, stopped ten meters away from the cenotaph, and tapped firmly on the ground, indicating where the hermit should be buried.

Nine hundred years have passed, and Peter Barco's sepulchre still lies ten meters away from St Vincent's cenotaph; and the basilica's right and left corridors are still free of furniture, so that pilgrims can continue to walk unencumbered.

The rock that bears witness to St Vincent's story still stands in the crypt, naked and unadorned. The building and the cenotaph still keep conveying their original message strongly and clearly, like a man who has found his mission in life, and knows exactly what he is doing.

Next to Pedro Barco's sepulchre, there is a curved mark on the basilica's floor. If we believe the legend, it was a mule that made that mark nine centuries ago, a mule that knew exactly where it wanted to go, and how to get there; a mule that had instinctively figured out the key to productivity, success, and happiness.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: Photograph of medieval sculpture; photo taken by John Vespasian, 2017.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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