The Splendor of Recreation
by Monsignor Charles M. Mangan
One might be surprised to discover that Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), in his monumental Summa Theologiae, addressed the topic of "play." What is the place of recreation in the Christian life?
In his "Second Part of the Second Part" (II, II), the "Angelic Doctor" discussed the value of play under the heading: "Regarding Modesty in Outward Bodily Actions" (Question 168). Just as the body needs rest from its labors so, too, the soul needs repose, which "lies in slackening the tension of mental study and taking some pleasure."
Saint Thomas used the famous story concerning Saint John the Evangelist related by Cassian, a fourth century Christian writer. One day, several persons found Saint John relaxing with his followers. These onlookers were scandalized that the Beloved Disciple of Jesus--the inspired author of the Fourth Gospel and three Epistles--would be recreating. The Apostle asked one of the amazed to shoot his arrow. Then, Saint John inquired whether he could continue shooting the arrow indefinitely. No, the man argued, because the bow would eventually break. The Evangelist keenly observed that our souls, also, will "break" if we do not provide them with obligatory rest.
While play is good, Saint Thomas sounded a trio of warning:
1.) "The pleasure should not be sought in anything indecent or harmful." (Even the non-Christian Cicero classified some jokes as discourteous, imprudent, obscene or shameful.)
2.) We should take care not to lose our direction. (Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor, commented that the harmony of our good works could be destroyed when we recreate if we do not exercise caution.)
3.) Our play--like other actions--is "to suit the person, place and time, and to be duly adopted to circumstances." (Cicero remarked that relaxation should fit both the hour and the person.)
Saint Thomas, based on Aristotle, wrote that one specific virtue is connected to play: "cheerfulness or well-turned wit . . . A wise and virtuous man will sometimes turn to them" (that is, "playful words and deeds").
Two other inquiries were also posed. Is unnecessary play evil? Is too little play sinful?
First, Saint Thomas contended that yes, truly superfluous play is wrong because it is excessive to the rule of reason. For instance, if one were to use improper gestures or words or those that would harm another, this recreation would be immoral. Or, a similar activity is wrong if the playing "is mistimed or misplaced or unsuitable to the business in hand or to the company."
Second, this Dominican master of theology taught that yes, not enough play is sinful because it is defective to the rule of reason. He straightforwardly submitted: "It is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by never showing himself agreeable to others or being a kill-joy or wet blanket on their enjoyment." Moreover, "those who lack playfulness are sinful, those who never say anything to make you smile, or are grumpy with those who do."
Rest and enjoyment are not "ends" in themselves but rather assist us in the pursuit of authentic holiness: the everlasting attainment of God in Paradise.
If we have not heeded Saint Thomas' counsel, now is a perfect time to experience the beauty of recreation. May God be adored in our work and in our repose!
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