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The Value of Leisure

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 21, 2006

Since conceiving our Catholic Leisure Project, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about the meaning of leisure. How can I explain this to a culture almost wholly caught up in work? Especially in America, we tend to equate leisure with idleness. In contrast, the classical world thought of leisure as something active. For the ancients, leisure was the pursuit of uniquely human activity, activity that went beyond that of the animals—beyond merely acquiring material goods and serving material desires. But we who are caught in an endless cycle of production and consumption . . . what can leisure possibly mean for us?

The Problem of Utility

We live in a culture which values being useful above all things. We tend to gauge our worth by how useful we are, most often measured by how much money we make or how important we are to ongoing projects of one type or another. This emphasis on measurable, workaday utility is part of the reason intellectuals feel guilty about spending time thinking. They feel a need to be redefined as “knowledge workers”. Similarly, those in the arts are often regarded as being shiftless, self-indulgent and unproductive. Worse still, stay-at-home mothers often feel pressured to get jobs so they can do something “useful”.

The problem with this emphasis is that what we might call the “common utility” of society is not coterminous with the “common good”. The “common utility” is the sum of all the countless contributions to material prosperity which make up a gross national product and materially improve the lives of all who participate in it. This common utility is very important and cannot be ignored without evil consequences, but it is only part of the common good. The whole common good includes such things as literature and the arts, morality, justice, love and religion—in short, all those things essential to a fully human life precisely because they go beyond the material.

The Nature of Man

We tend to forget that man is essentially different from animals, which are rooted in materiality. Man has a dual or composite nature, at once both material and spiritual. Consequently, man has unique needs and aspirations which he must fulfill in order to be happy. Everything sought or created in response to these genuinely and uniquely human aspirations is part of the common good, including man’s relationship with God. When people limit themselves to concern only for “utility”, they become stunted, failing to fulfill their human potential. Society and culture are impoverished. Happiness is diminished. Destiny is lost.

Unfortunately, a similar kind of myopia can affect even committed Christians who rightly combat the excesses of our culture, including its materialistic consumerism. Christians in the trenches will sometimes measure worth by the calculus of how “usefully” they can spend their time in the fight for souls. In this view, the battle is all; man’s perpetual obligation is to work ceaselessly in “spiritually useful” activity. Clearly we ignore what is spiritually useful at our peril, but usefulness, no matter how defined, is not the crowning glory of the human person. Mere usefulness ignores too much that is primary in our nature, including much that is essential to holiness and openness to God.

Wonder and the Affirmation of Being

The one thing needful was chosen by Mary when, much to Martha’s chagrin, she refused to do what was useful. Instead she demonstrated the premier aspect of human nature, that which raises us above the animals: our capacity to contemplate being. This is a uniquely human—a uniquely personal—ability. It enables us to enter into an intellectual and spiritual relationship with reality, to ask questions of it and receive its answers, to perceive ourselves as part of reality even as we consciously stand apart from it. This essentially contemplative capacity is summed up in a single word: wonder. Of all the beings which share a material nature, man and man alone is capable of a sense of wonder.

Josef Pieper points out that wonder is the basis of the philosophical act, the essential stance which enables us to ask why rather than how. Wonder is that profound mixture of astonishment and gratitude by which we immediately connect with reality and affirm being. As such, it lies at the heart of man's ability to relate properly to himself, to others and to God. Children possess this sense of wonder naturally, but it tends to be driven out by the need to be, well, useful. Our culture pressures us to view reality as a mechanism, to be harnessed for a wide array of useful purposes, lest we be guilty of idleness, or a failure to produce. But the capacity for wonder is so critical to human development that we must learn how to preserve and nourish it. In a culture like ours, this means learning to “do leisure”.

Leisure, the School of Receptivity

There may be souls who, no matter how seemingly severe their labor, are advanced enough spiritually to be continually open to God, to others, and to reality in general. Such persons, insofar as they exist, are always at peace, living continually in the presence of God. They are relaxed and ready to respond to anything, without the least spiritual perturbation. But this is not true of most of us. Most of us are preoccupied; taken up with working and getting and spending; worried about our image or our productivity; focused on our own problems; tense and prone to irritability. To God and to others, indeed to reality at large, we are anything but receptive.

And so life becomes dull, tedious, stultifying. Worse, we relax or go on vacation only just often enough to enable us to return with renewed energy to this drudgery of perpetual utility, of perpetual measurement. It is no surprise that, in our culture, leisure is wrongly defined as merely a break from work. But leisure is really much more. Its essential characteristic is a profound sense of connectedness, often manifested in a grateful heart, a sense of family, or a spirit of friendship. “Doing leisure” is how we ordinarily learn to open ourselves to reality, to school ourselves in receptiveness to life, yes, and even to love. In leisure we focus not on utility but on being. We nourish our sense of wonder, enter into relationships, and so become whole.

Prayer and Other Delights

Many people are able to catch a glimpse of this in their family celebration of religious feasts, rooted in love and gathered around the table at the feastday meal. Similarly, the highest form of leisure is prayer—prayer in which we succeed at least partially in putting ourselves in the presence of God, love speaking to love. At its apex, then, the essence of leisure is to be found in the Eucharist, an epiphany of redemption, love and gratitude.

For most of us, however, prayer often involves burdensome toil. Along with a certain contemplative receptivity, we also experience a kind of slogging work. This is because we are so dull spiritually that we are only seldom lifted out of ourselves in an effortless encounter with God. Fortunately, God understands our nature and gives us a sort of introduction to spirituality in the wholesome delight we take in each other and in so many of his more tangible gifts.

As human persons, we are intrinsically drawn to a wide variety of persons, places, activities, and objects. In these things which we naturally enjoy (whatever they may be for each one of us) we find opportunities to live in the moment, enriched by our reflective participation in some small portion of reality, and therefore learning to open ourselves to the whole. In the pursuit of these small joys, we find that even effort itself takes on a new character. It ceases to be drudgery and becomes, in a word, fun. Our receptivity to any special object of delight—our wonder—transforms everything. It is in such pursuits, then, that we rightly spend our “leisure time”. Natural and Supernatural

As with everything human, there are dangers in our efforts to “do leisure”. If we confuse openness to being with mere pleasure (which is the same as confusing joy with pleasure), we can fall into the trap of simply harvesting reality to reap pleasure. In this there is no affirmation of being. We do not stand before being and ask why; we stand over it and ask how. We are locked in utility all over again. This is why leisure itself is actually rooted in something very like religious festivity, the enjoyment of things we know are God’s, not ours. Without understanding and participating in true leisure, we will take rather than receive. Our relationships will wither; we will have nothing to give.

By now it should be obvious that these ideas are difficult to crystallize; they must be lived in order to be fully appreciated. Without some concrete experience of authentic leisure, we are hard-pressed to understand its specific value in our lives. A purely theoretically exposition is not sufficient. It is this need for a more tangible presentation that the Catholic Leisure Project will address, beginning with our first sample articles next week. What I hope will become clear is that this unique human receptivity to being can be cultivated through true leisure. Moreover, once cultivated, it can blossom into a habitual relationship between ourselves and the world, ourselves and others, ourselves and God.

Leisure is the first and most natural antidote for the contemporary blight of utility; it is our first step in learning to recognize the giftedness pervading all that is. For this reason, it is one of the highest of human goods. Its sense of wonder led the ancients out of materialism and into philosophy. Combined with Faith, true leisure will also help the Christian, who can rise higher still.

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