“No philosopher has ever been able to grasp the being of a single fly,” pondered St. Thomas Aquinas. The scientist ceases to wonder when he receives his results. Yet, those who philosophize and contemplate the nature of the world, reality, and God, can never fully comprehend, and never cease to wonder. To contemplate spiritual and eternal things is to wonder and to hope, never fully grasp the infinite nature of God. The philosopher Josef Pieper calls this wonder and holy puzzlement “leisure.” Leisure, he says, is the basis for all culture. Derived from the same word, the ancient Greek “skole” means to educate or to teach.. They understood that the idea of leisure as something more than our limited interpretation today.
Here in the summer month of July and heading into the dog days of summer, with families focused on vacations, cookouts, swimming and the beach, taking a break from work, it is fitting to reflect upon leisure. What is leisure? To Pieper, leisure is not a break from an activity or a distraction, but a state of the soul. It is a contemplative and spiritual attitude consisting of an inner silence. It is receptivity to the world and an embrace of who we truly are.
One unfortunate tendency of the modern age is to idolize work. In the West, we tend towards careerism, to be workaholics. On the other side, under Communism and Marxist rule, all of life was oriented towards “the worker,” with all activities focused on material economics and work itself. In either extreme, the idea of the worker becomes an idol, and work becomes idolatry. The person lives to work, rather than work to live. The dignity of man and his personhood is subsumed under his utility. How useful is he to society? Utilitarianism is the ultimate purpose of the worker. There is no higher dignity, no contemplation of God, no comprehension of spiritual things. In short, no leisure.
It was not always so. Although modern philosophy and science focuses primarily upon utilitarian ends, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered liberal arts an end in themselves. In our current times the “hard sciences” of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, and medicine are favored culturally, and monetarily, over the “soft sciences” of philosophy and theology. The Aristotelian and Thomistic views of knowledge, however, focused not exclusively on the empirical senses, but also on a broader spiritual base of knowledge. Knowledge to them meant more than materialism, but also an understanding of ultimate things. It does not necessarily need function or utility, and the worker does not need to be tied to the State or production. Pieper called this the “de-proletariarizing” of the worker. Higher work and higher knowledge in ancient times were generally non-utilitarian and spiritual in nature.
Leisure is a form of rest. It does not necessarily mean “non-work.” It is an attitude of the mind, a state of the soul, whether working or not working. It does not imply that work is bad. God commanded man in the book of Genesis to work, then declaring, “it was good.” Work is good, but God also gives us the Sabbath. Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word for rest. In the Creation story, on the seventh day, God rested. God commands us to rest on the seventh day as well and observe the Sabbath by doing no work. It is not a rule whimsically imposed on us by God. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man,” or, in other words, for our benefit. Rest in this Judeo-Christian sense does not mean to do nothing. It means to engage in restful contemplation and thanksgiving towards God. We are to worship in awe at all that God has created and wrought for us. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)
Leisure involves true knowledge. It involves recognition of who we truly are, in light of the knowledge of God. We can rest and be still in the knowledge that God created us, redeemed us, and it is to Him that we are ultimately to return home for eternity. This is the peaceful spirit of leisure that should inform our lives whether we are working or not working. The spirit of leisure can be our constant state of mind.
The ancient philosophers also had a term for idleness, “acedia.” It was not meant in the modern notion of laziness, or a lack of work or activity, but rather a sense of restlessness. It is a restlessness of our being when we refuse to receive God’s command to rest in Him. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Him.” The restlessness of acedia is to ignore the third Commandment to observe the Sabbath, and take our rest in God. When we refuse God’s rest, we will remain in a spirit of restlessness. Jesus renews the gift of the Sabbath: “Come to Me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For My yoke is easy and burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28, 30) Jesus here is speaking of leisure of the soul.
Whether we are steeped in work or driven to distraction, God calls us first and foremost to rest in Him. This is our true leisure. We are not called to withdraw from the world, but rather, to fully reconnect to reality. The term religion comes from the Latin “religare” meaning to bind or to connect. When we engage in religion, and specifically the Church and the Mass, we are re-engaging with God, with spiritual things, with reality and ourselves, who we truly are. This is our leisure. Leisure is that briefest of glimpses of eternal rest when we will, with awe and wonder, behold the Beatific Vision.
This summer as we take our vacations, let us remember to embrace leisure in our minds, for we are not made for work alone. We are made for God. As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote of being “contemplatives in the midst of the world,” we can seek leisure in the midst of all our summer activities, as we orient all of our work and relaxation towards its proper end, with the true knowledge of God and of ourselves. In so doing, we will use our work and our rest to “consecrate the world itself to God.” (Lumen Gentium, 34)