Leisure in the Life of the Christian

Authored by Simone Rizkallah in Issue #6.2 of The Catechetical Review

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"An inordinate fondness for beetles."[1]

British geneticist J.B.S. Haldan, when asked what could be inferred about God from a study of his works

 

The first time I read Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, I felt I had finally encountered the philosophical and theological categories to explain the discomfort I felt in a culture obsessed with nonstop activity, imagery, and noise. Perhaps also being a first-generation American, with a Middle Eastern sensibility of leisure, I felt especially out of place.

Unfortunately, it seems modern Christians have long abandoned the primacy of leisure, its foundation in the life of prayer and holiness, and, which Josef Pieper so brilliantly explains, its necessity in the restoration of a desirable culture.

The Meaning of Leisure

Leisure is not a thing to be done, it is a way to be. It is, for that reason, somewhat difficult to define. Pieper describes it as a “mental and spiritual attitude, a condition of the soul, an inward calm, of silence, of not being ‘busy’ and letting things happen.”[2]

Therefore, the definition of leisure is much richer than merely being on vacation, having fun, entertaining oneself or doing “leisurely” activities. These things are often done for the sake of the rest needed to return to work. Leisure is not for the sake of work, it’s not for the sake of anything!

The loss of leisure, both personally and culturally, is not only the loss of the dignity and value of the person but also of the human personality.

The Meaning of Christianity

The Christian faith is precisely that—faith. It is the recognition of a presence, a loving presence, in one’s life. It is a recognition of a spiritual reality beyond the practical reality of the world of work. It is an entrance into a loving relationship with the Presence, who has revealed himself to man in the Person of the God-man Jesus Christ. For the person who has truly encountered him, denying this relationship would be unreasonable. Like all personal relationships, it takes work, but not the sort of work the world values. It takes another kind of work.

Two Conceptions of Work

The work it takes to know God, in other words, to be in a relationship with him, is quite different than the work the world values. The sort of work the world values is the kind that is difficult and effortful. This understanding of work originates, according to Pieper, with a “father” of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant.

For Kant, even intellectual work has to be exclusively discursive. It consists essentially in the act of “comparing, examining, relating, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, demonstrating—all of which are forms of active intellectual effort."[3] Therefore, the work of knowing is activity, and it is this characteristic of activity that justifies intellectual work and makes it credible.

However, this interpretation of the act of knowing, of intellectual work, is not the only one. The ancient Greek and Medieval philosophers believed that the discursive use of the intellect (ratio/reason) is only one way of knowing. The other way of knowing is through the intuition (simplex intuitus/simply looking). Pieper explains the distinction by using the example of knowing a rose. A rose can be known discursively by taking it apart, observing it, studying it, and, therefore in a sense, "possessing" it.[4] Or it can be known by simply gazing upon and absorbing its beauty. The defining characteristic of the intuition is receptivity, rather than activity.

For the ancients and later the Christians, the work of knowing involves both the activity of reason and the receptivity of intuition.

Prayer is the Work of the Christian

An elevated knowledge of God comes through the receptivity of intuition rather than through discursive reasoning. Pieper writes, “the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble.”[5]

Lydia, a girl in my youth group, once told me: “I’m really looking forward to it.” When I asked her what she’s looking forward to, she replied, “I don’t know exactly but it’s exciting!” The awareness Lydia had of her desire for the infinite, her poverty of spirit, is what leisure cultivates in the human person. It has been said that true prayer is simply waiting for God to come when and how he wants. However, it is not a passive waiting, but a receptive one.

Yet, without the silence, space, and time for the cultivation of leisure, I cannot pray well. I cannot wait well. And then I may not be in a prime position to recognize “when and how” he arrives. If life is too busy (especially dangerous if it is busy with “pious” and “churchy” activities), then even time set aside for prayer becomes burdensome and moralistic. If I am uncomfortable with silence (both interior and exterior), then I am neither comfortable with myself nor God and others. When this discomfort becomes habitual, it is the vice of sloth.

Sloth is the Enemy of Leisure

Sloth (or acedĭa) is contrary to leisure; because, while leisure is an  openness to reality, sloth is a habitual sorrow in front of reality and specifically spiritual reality. This sadness is so oppressive that the person who suffers from sloth “wants to do nothing” and experiences a “sluggishness of the mind.”[6] Slothful people are idle, restless, agitated, and often workaholics. They are spiritually lazy and easily bored. The worst form of sloth is despair, which is ultimately “a refusal to be oneself.”[7]

Even a superficial reflection of the current cultural crises makes evident enough that this “refusal to be oneself” characterizes the present moment. Consider the staggering opioid crisis and sky-rocketing rates of youth suicide as two examples among the many.

Two Conceptions of Man

Pope St. John Paul II believed the “lethal mess” of the 20th century, which witnessed the “pulverization of the human person,”[8] was ultimately due to a flawed anthropology. For example, the Communists believed that the human person was primarily an economic subject who exists ultimately for the benefit of the state. Christians believe the human person is willed by God for his own sake and that God’s glory manifests in his being alive.[9] Man is not primarily useful and in fact he is not to be “used” at all. As a priest and friend of mine once told me, “The point of your life...is you!”

In other words, the purpose of man is to be happy. However, happiness in the Ancient and Christian conception is not mere enjoyment or maintaining pleasant feelings. The way that I become more myself, accept myself, is to be myself and to perfect my being. The more I perfect my human nature, the happier I become. Aristotle wrote, “And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure…”[10]

St. Thomas Aquinas builds on Aristotle’s thought and explained:

Man’s ultimate happiness consists in the contemplation of truth, for this operation is specific to men and is shared with no other animals. Also, it is not directed to any other end since the contemplation of truth is sought for its own sake. In addition, in this operation, man is united to higher beings since this is the only human operation that is carried out both by God and by the angels.[11]

Therefore, the prioritization of leisure is the protection of humanity. It allows people to become the sort of beings conducive to the contemplation of truth. Enjoying the “useless” things in life or participating in activities done for their own sake is a powerful personal and cultural statement that man’s value and dignity is found only in belonging to the God whose very being he is able to mirror.

Leisure is the Basis of Culture

It is no wonder then that those who seek to use man (e.g. totalitarian regimes of the 20th century) attempt to destroy the very places where the truth about man’s dignity has traditionally been lived and taught: the Church and schools. The word “leisure” in the Greek is “skole,” in Latin it is “scola,” in English it is “school.”[12] The understanding of school as leisure is why the liberal arts are so-called. Education was for the sake of man’s freedom, perfection, and salvation; not for the sake of work. It seems while the West has largely forgotten this connection, its enemies have not forgotten. For example, the terrorist group of Nigeria, Boko Haram (which means “Western Education is forbidden”), is one such example.

The root of the word culture is “cult,” which means “worship.” What a collective people worship determines the qualities of their culture. If people worship money, their culture will be materialistic. Decisions will be motivated not primarily by that which concerns human dignity, but by economics. If people worship power, their culture will be politically ideological, polarized, and oftentimes quite violent because of it. If people worship honor, their culture will be dominated by vain pursuits, the cult of personality and celebrity influencers. And if people worship pleasure, their culture will be dominated by lust and other expressions of hedonism.

The kind of culture formed by leisure is a different sort of culture. Because a life of leisure, while much more difficult to cultivate than the idolatry listed above, culminates in the worship of God. The “soul of leisure,” Pieper explains, is “celebration.”[13] This is why missing Sunday mass (or perhaps experiencing it more as an obligation than anything else) is a sin against leisure and under the vice of sloth. Another description of leisure Pieper gives us is the “happy and cheerful affirmation” of man’s being. When man is able to affirm the goodness of his being, he is simultaneously able to enter into the core of leisure: love. Reality is not a curse, but a promise! 

What It Means to Take Leisure Seriously

In his epic little book of three Advent homilies, Joseph Ratzinger notes:

How far we are from a world in which people no longer need to be taught about God because He is present within us! It has been asserted that our century is characterized by an entirely new phenomenon: the appearance of people incapable of relating to God.[14]  

Leisure is the way out of this “new phenomenon” and into the phenomenon of the Christian Faith. The good news is that history has already made this evident and now we only need the confidence to trust its method. It wasn’t programs but people who evangelized the first century. Christian culture was one starkly different than the pagan one: the happiness of family life, gratuitous charitable works for the needy whether Christian or pagan, miracles and manifestations of the charisms of the Holy Spirit. Leisure certainly “worked” during the movements of monasticism that, in short, saved and built European civilization. This historical fact alone should be enough of an effective battle cry to take leisure seriously.

A busy Catholic parish, school, or institution, which has “baptized” busy-ness, may be effective evangelizers, but evangelizers of something other than the Gospel. This is the case no matter how pious or well-intentioned the plans and projects. The starting point for any  true renewal must begin with knowing who we are and who God is in order that we may truly know what it is he would have us do. This truth is why Pieper wrote his book; why Pope St. John Paul II resisted the Nazis and Communists with theatre, poetry, and prayer; and why the most powerful witnesses of today are available, original, and apostolically creative.

Christians can begin the “work” of leisure by purifying their speech. Phrases such as “I’m too busy,” and “Life is crazy right now” should scandalize us. These phrases describe the lifestyle of the world, not of the Christian. The Christian is the one who claims to worship the Creator of space and time and who gave time to us as a gift of mercy. We have the time. As Pope St. John Paul II once said, “All my time is free.”[15]  If we value leisure, we have time for it. If we don’t, then we won’t. But it won’t be because we don’t have the time. It is simply because we have made a different choice.

Can the people of God radically return to a culture of fostering leisurely people who have the capacity to receive God when and how he wants?

“When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:18)

Simone Rizkallah is currently the Director of Program Growth for Endow Groups. Previously she worked at St. Mary's Catholic High School in Phoenix, Arizona as Theology Department Chair and Senior Theology Teacher. She blogs at www.culturalgypsy.com

Endow is a non-profit organization that creates study guides to help women access with ease the rich theological inheritance of the Church to be used most ideally in a small-group community. For more information, please visit www.endowgroups.org.

Notes


[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species: By Means of Natural Selection (London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2010), Preface.

[2] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 46.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Summa Q35, Article 4 II-II.

[7] Pieper, Leisure, 4.

[8] John Paul II’s Letter to Henri de Lubac, 1968.

[9] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 4 Chapter 20.

[12] Pieper, Leisure, 19.

[13] Ibid., 65.

[14] Joseph Ratzinger, What It Means To Be A Christian, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 24-25.

[15] Jason Evert, Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, (Lakewood: Totus Tuus Press, 2014).

 

A Litany of Leisure 

When I am tempted to always be doing something,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to be busier than necessary, 

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to skip prayer,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to give in to distraction, 

Help me, Jesus.

When I am being hasty,  

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to ignore my need for silence,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to avoid holy "interruptions" or "inspirations,"

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to self-hatred,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to be emotionally inattentive or to avoid eye contact,

Help me, Jesus.

When I can’t let go,

Help me, Jesus.

When I’ve lost the capacity for wonder and play,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to talk too much and listen too little,

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to idle curiosity, 

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to use Sunday to “catch up,”

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to exchange “leisurely” activities (e.g. having a good sit, reading literature, savoring natural beauty) for superficial amusement and entertainment, 

Help me, Jesus.

When I am tempted to avoid Your gaze, 

Help me, Jesus.

Lord, help me to have the courage to do nothing. Amen.

 

 

Leisure: A Biblical Examination of Conscience

Jesus looked at him and loved him. (Mark 10:21)

Do I believe I am loved, really loved, by God? Do I look at others with the same gaze of love in which God looks at me? Do I make an effort to make eye contact with people who are trying to speak to me and be fully present to them? 

 

But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Do I allow myself the freedom to be in wonder about the mystery of life? Do I feel the unnecessary burden to have “it all figured out” and be able to understand and explain everything in life? Both positive and negative? 

 

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

Am I trying to solve all the problems of my life in one day? Do I talk too much and too fast? Do I make space for and enjoy silence? 

 

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)

Do I promise more than I can healthily deliver? 

 

There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42)

Am I preoccupied, distracted, and stressed? Do I work too much? Do I have the capacity to let go of my agenda? 

 

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matthew 19:14)

Do I play? 

 

So, Philip ran up and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I, he said, unless someone guides me?’ (Acts 8:31)

Do I have enough margin space in my day for “holy interruptions?”

 

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Do I make time to savor and seek out encounters with beauty such as creation, elevated art and music? 

 

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. (Colossians 3:23) 

Do I have a habit of hastiness? 

 

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10) 

Am I unhappy? Am I bored? Am I idle? Do I mind my own business? Am I sad instead of joyful about the business of God? Does Sunday Mass feel more obligatory than celebratory? 

 

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. (Matthew 6:28)

Do I accept myself as I am with freedom, trust, and serenity? Do I have the humility and strength to let “it” go? Do I have the capacity to receive from the Lord? 

 

I never knew you. (Matthew 7:23)

Are the Lord and I friends?

 

This article originally appeared on pages 10-13 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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