Catholic Social Doctrine: Understanding the Holiness of Leisure
Leisure is a part of living a fully human life and receiving the fullness of the gift of being human
The Christian is not given the Sabbath so that he can go to the circus with the Pagan. "Believers," the Compendium tells us (adverting to the rise in violence in entertainment which is a sign of rising neo-Paganism) "should distinguish themselves on this day too by their moderation, avoiding the excesses and certainly the violence that mass entertainment sometimes occasions." (Compendium, No. 285)
It is also wrong to look at leisure as equivalent to relaxation, something to re-charge the batteries so we can get back to work refreshed. Leisure must also be distinguished from idleness. The leisure the Church and the philosopher Josef Pieper have in mind is not the leisure of the "leisure class" excoriated by Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, or the leisure of the "idle rich" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.
The leisure or rest the Church has in mind is what the Cistercians called otium sanctum, a holy leisure.
Indeed, this holy leisure is worlds apart from idleness, mere relaxation, or entertainment. It requires a devotion, discipline, and effort of its own. This more rugged form of holy leisure is what the Trappist monk Thomas Merton appears to be grasping for when he wrote in his book The Other Side of the Mountain: the End of the Journey: "I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read to cultivate leisure--otium sanctum! There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation."
St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke oxymoronically of a negotissimum otium, a very busy leisure, a leisure that in Merton's words required "effort, deepening, change, and transformation."
It is a challenging task to learn how to be receptive, how to empty oneself so that one might accept something that is not one's own. In fact, the original word from which we derive the word vacation is Latin vacatio, which means to empty oneself out. We moderns think vacations are times we fill with things like trips. But vacations were originally times where we emptied ourselves of things and of ourselves so that we had space for God.
Monastic writers speak of vacare Deo, to vacate oneself for God. Indeed, this notion is scriptural. The Psalms speak of it: Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 45(46):10) The word "be still" is (in the Latin Vulgate) vacate and in the Greek Septuagint scholasate, a form of the very word the philosophers used to describe leisure. We might translate this Psalm as "be at leisure" or "be at rest" or "empty yourself" and know that I am God. This notion of leisure is outside the pale of modern life, and this is why T. S. Eliot in his poem "Ash Wednesday" includes the prayer, "Teach us to sit still." T. S. Eliot realized this is what moderns need. We have to go to school to learn to be on vacation.
Of course, activity is not to be regarded as evil though it is ordered to leisure. We have a duty to work. And work has a tremendous dignity of its own. Sometimes even activity is the prerequisite to grasping truth. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote the poet Robert Bridges who had asked him how he could learn to believe. Gerard Manley Hopkins told Bridges to quit thinking about it and "give alms." Here, it was right to recommend action over thinking.
If one's work is properly ordered and subordinated to leisure, then everything goes along harmoniously. Then one can pray along with the Benedictine, laborare est orare, to work is to pray. In his book The City of God, St. Augustine seems to have grasped the balance: "The love of truth seeks a holy leisure, but the urgency of love undertakes the work that is due."
All that we have reflected upon in our last two articles on leisure, "The Recovery of Leisure" and "Regaining the Mind and Redeeming the Time," is necessary to understand so that we can grasp what the Church means when she says in her Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church "Rest from work is a right." (Compendium, No. 284). Within this short statement is included the entire notion of the primacy of leisure or rest over work, of Mary over Martha, of the contemplative life over the active life, of intellectus over ratio, of kairos over chronos, of the intrinsic connection between leisure and rest and the divine worship, and of Augustine's "urgency of love that makes us undertake the work that is due."
The Church has institutionalized rest, and seeks to have its value recognized in our social life. The "Lord's Day," the Christian Sabbath, is a time specifically set apart for rest. Holidays--as the original word "Holy Day" attests--were the additional days set apart for rest, for the divine cultus or worship. For this reason, the Christian faithful are urged to "refrain from 'engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.'" (Compendium, No. 284) "The Lord's Day should always be lived as a day of liberation that allows us to take part in the 'festal gathering and the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven' (cf. Heb. 12:22-23), anticipating thus the celebration of the definitive Passover in the glory of heaven." (Compendium, No. 285) "Sunday is an appropriate time for the reflection, silence, study, and meditation that foster the growth of the interior Christian life." (Compendium, No. 285)
Finally, the Church, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, recognizes that it is proper sometimes to act--to give alms and quit leisure or rest, even in those days especially set apart for leisure or rest. The Church has learned the lesson of her Lord that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, "[f]amily needs and service of great importance to society constitute legitimate excuses from the obligation of Sunday rest." But even then the exception must not swallow up the rule, but must prove the rule, as the exception "must not create habits that are prejudicial to religion, family life, or health." Sunday in particular "should be made holy by charitable activity." The end of the worship of God ends with a commission--ite missa est. Go! the mass is ended, the commission is given you! That commission is what is called the missio Dei, the mission of God for the service of our brother. Therefore, time should be devoted to "family and relatives, as well as the sick, the infirm, and the elderly." (Compendium, No. 284)
It is in the hopes of recapturing this entire lost world that the Church urges that "Christians, in respect of religious freedom and of the common good of all, should seek to have Sundays and the Church's Holy Days recognized as legal holidays." But legality alone will not transform our culture of "total work." For that we must pray: Dona nobis Domine otium sanctum! Lord give us holy leisure!
This rejection of the world of total work, the recovery of leisure over work and its relationship to divine worship, the regaining of our intellect, the redeeming of time: these are essential. For only then shall we leave the false gods we worship and be able to receive the God who is Love. As John Donne wrote in his poem "Break of Day":
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
Spare us, O Lord, from being busied men! Libera nos, Domine!
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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