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
Being Still,leisure, is a part 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 ...
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