The importance of leisure

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23:1-3,3-4,5,6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

“Come away by yourself to a deserted place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).

“For he (Christ) is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3).

Rest is both a gift from God and a command from God. God desires to renew and restore us through the various rhythms of life he has established for us. And knowing that we often do not follow his gentle prodding, he also directed us to pay attention to these rhythms by incorporating them into his commandment of Sabbath rest and festive celebration.

Even a cursory glance at the Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament — reveals that God was very concerned that his chosen people honor certain cycles in their daily, weekly and yearly lives. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath rests, yearly periods of fasting, celebrating and worshipping were all part of God’s plan for humanity. Even the regulations concerning land use recognized the need for periods of rest and renewal.

Today, of course, any decent doctor or psychologist or agricultural engineer could cite you many reasons why all these commands are grounded in practical common sense. Humans can flourish only with the proper amount of sleep, rest, leisure and vacation. The land, too, needs periods of rest, crop rotations, treatment, etc. if it is to remain healthy and fertile. God’s commands reflect the way the world is because he is the author, creator, and sustainer of all things.

But many of us try to buck the basic rhythms of life, creating an artificial world more and more remote and removed from the “limitation of nature.” Much of this is understandable and is, most likely, unproblematic. However, there are sound philosophical and theological reasons for paying attention to the rhythms of rest, renewal and celebration.

First, as the German philosophy Josef Pieper taught in his now classic work “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” man was not just made for servile work. We all need time for our minds and bodies to soar above the mundane. Leisure, properly understood, is active rest. It is time we set aside to contemplate, to play, to socialize, to discuss. In other words, it is time for recreation — time that allows God’s “re-creative” activity to happen in us.

Properly understood, leisure is intimately interwoven with worship and both help build true culture. In the preface to his book, Pieper wrote, “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with a church community and with divine worship.”

Leisure unhinged from worship, disconnected from true communion with others, can denigrate into frivolous self-indulgence or slothful laziness. But leisure that is part of a disciplined life of work, play, study, prayer, worship and social activity is a powerful antidote to the frenzied activism that dominates many parts of our society.

One thing that leisure facilitates is the contemplative attitude which leads to genuine gratitude. When we “stop and rest awhile” we come to recognize the beauty and the grandeur of the gift of creation. We can begin again to wonder at the marvels of life itself — our own being and the gift of those around us. Leisure provides the space and time for real prayer.

This is one reason why the church recommends a daily prayer life of depth and substance. This is why God commands a Sabbath rest. This is why spiritual masters recommend monthly days of renewal and yearly retreats that allow us “to come away by ourselves to a deserted place.” All of these spiritual practices aid us in cultivating the contemplative dimension of life.

But leisure time is also to be spent in communion with others. I do not believe that anyone on their deathbed will lament that they did not spend enough time watching television or playing video games. But many do lament the lost chances to be truly present with their family and friends. Especially to be cherished and celebrated is the family meal where loved ones spend time breaking bread together and communing with one another.

Leisure is the basis of culture. It provides us with time to worship and time to cultivate a communion of life and love among our families and friends. It must be an essential part of our lives as Christians. John Paul II, when commenting on today’s Gospel on July 23, 2000, said it quite well:

“In today’s often frenetic and competitive society, in which the logic of production and profit prevail, often at the expense of the individual, it is still necessary for everyone to be able to enjoy adequate periods of rest, in which to regain their energy and at the same time restore the right inner balance. Vacations, holidays, must be wisely used in order to benefit the individual and the family through contact with nature, tranquility, the opportunity to foster greater family harmony, good reading and healthy recreational activities; above all, through the possibility of spending more time in prayer, in contemplation and in listening to God.”

May God bless all of you with periods of rest and relaxation this summer.

A priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Msgr. Stuart Swetland is the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md.

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