Karen Landry is a stay-at-home Mom who dabbles occasionally in Great Books and currently teaches 11th Grade Great Books at CHA. She and her husband work to educate their three boys, Joseph, 9th grade, Jacob, 7th grade and Mark, 4th grade in the classical tradition, with much help from CHA. Her MA is in Film from Regent University. The Landry family resides in Carroll County, Maryland.
But what is leisure really about? And what is so “dangerous” about a lack of leisure?
Classically, “leisure” referred to something fundamental in a person’s life. Aristotle believed,“leisure is the center-point about which everything revolves.” Strictly speaking, this isn’t a definition, but it’s illuminating. Aristotle throws our “down time” idea into stark contradiction. Unless we concede all our work, toil, efforts and striving in life is aimed solely at getting some “down time” then perhaps what Aristotle has to say about leisure will make us think twice.
Aristotle’s understanding of leisure seems to suggest leisure is really important!
Turns out leisure isn’t such an easy thing to define. Let’s look first at what leisure is not.
Leisure is not:
- lounging about lazily
- satisfying my quotient for amusement
- doing nothing
We need to unpack each of these before we can figure out what leisure is.
Leisure isn’t laziness. Laziness and sloth are often used interchangeably. In the Middle Ages, the idea of “sloth” included not just being too, well “lazy” to pursue spiritual goods, but also too restless to stop working! This idea, the workaholic who can’t take a break, hardly conjures up the same image as “sloth” – but let’s see what Thomas Aquinas says about that:
To sloth, one may attribute:
- uneasiness of the mind
- loquacity (talking too much)
- restlessness of the body
- instability, causing a man to move about from one place to another
These behaviors help us focus more clearly on what the ancients thought of sloth, in contrast to authentic leisure. In fact, with a little digging we can see they are diametrically opposed to each other. A person who exhibits any of the above mentioned behaviors does so, per Thomas, as a result of avoiding spiritual goods.
What might sloth look like in the 21st Century?
Picture a workaholic. It’s possible the busy-ness of a person driven to work 24/7 is a form of sloth. Thomas Aquinas might say this person’s compulsion to work may be a symptom of a fundamental lack of ability to live at peace with himself. That is, he is not free to seek his higher self. This person easily dives into work for work’s sake but is uncomfortable with the thought of recollection. Our modern workaholic often receives a great deal of tangible and intangible rewards: money, prestige and a sense of importance. Likely, this person feels compelled to “do” something all the time, and may struggle to simply “be”.
- the busy executive on the phone or texting constantly during a family vacation
- a dedicated mom who can’t simply sit and enjoy a movie without checking homework
Thomas would identify the interior dispositions that lead to these behaviors as sloth. They point to an avoidance of one’s rational nature to seek the things that make a person human and not a beast.
Leisure is not amusement. Aristotle again calls leisure “the first principle of all action” and asks what one ought to do when at leisure? He answers,
“Clearly we ought not to be amusing ourselves, for then amusement would be the end [goal] of life… he who is hard at work has need of relaxation, and amusement gives relaxation.”
That’s a pretty shining endorsement of relaxation, but he’s clearly telling us leisure and amusement are not the same thing. They meet two different objectives.
The end of amusement is relaxation
The end of leisure is rest.
Leisure is not cramming-in a video game, riding roller coasters, internet surfing or catching a Netflix episode after a long day’s work. Aristotle would probably see these as our modern day amusements, which he deems a necessary good.
Doing nothing is definitely not leisure. This may be another form of relaxation, fitting on occasion, but it doesn’t hit the mark of leisure, which is definitely something.
Leisure is not difficult. By this I mean it shouldn’t hurt, it shouldn’t be uncomfortable, mentally or physically.
So, what is leisure? Authentic leisure consists of things like contemplation, contemplative prayer, contemplative moments and play, and it is characterized by effortlessness.
In each instance of leisure we can perceive an element of contemplation, as genuine leisure is rooted in divine worship. That is, it is done for its own sake, it is directed toward God and toward rest in God, it is not a means to an end and it is given. How? How do you enter into leisure by way of contemplation?
One option is to begin by meditating on the Scriptures or some profound writings on the attributes of God or the spiritual life, or a book on philosophy, or reflective prayer. The purpose is to illumine the darkened soul by the light of wisdom. Reading in this way differs from our modern mode of data accumulation or information stockpiling.
There may be some effort involved at the beginning, when you’re first diving into the text, reading and re-reading the poignant, profound passages, mulling it over, and intermingling thought and prayer. Eventually, this becomes effortless as it progresses into a savoring consideration in which the idea acts on you.
In this interplay with the text, in an interior communion with God, your intellect takes you beyond the merely horizontal, beyond discursive analysis and you begin to enter into the most noble mode of human life. By the grace of God you grasp a more profound insight. It’s an “aha” moment when it all comes together and makes sense – and you are somehow changed.
Providing a concrete example is nearly impossible, as this sort of authentic leisure is an interior movement, it is so personal, so intimate and unique – it’s not unlike the quiet intimate moments between husband and wife when no words are spoken, because none suffice.
Moreover, authentic leisure is not something you do. It’s not something you add to your life because you notice something is missing. You make yourself available, but authentic leisure is given to you.
Contemplative moments are also an experience of authentic leisure. One concrete example I can draw on from my years growing up in Oregon is skiing the Magic Mile run on Mt. Hood in Spring. The chairlift traveled far beyond the timberline and while whisking off the chair lift, I always skied over to the far side of the run to avoid other skiers. There I would pause, catch my breath and enjoy the view. From that vantage point, on a crisp, clear day, the whole of the Willamette Valley spread before my eyes with its undulating hills blanketed with endless evergreens. Rising high above the tree line rose the peaks of the Cascade range: Mt. Rainer, Mt. Adams and the flattened summit of Mt. St. Helens. I stopped to soak in the beauty, to let it wash over me, to breathe deeply of the cool, brisk air and to enter into a contemplative moment of joy and gratitude with my Creator, the artist beyond compare. The run was smooth and wide and most inviting for a graceful, gliding, effortless descent down the mountain. It’s a vivid memory.
Through the beauty of His creation, God acted on me – and I corresponded to His advances – I welcomed Him and savored the joy, gratitude and overflowing delight which welled-up in my soul.
My whole person was engaged and I delighted in every moment, every breath, every turn as I floated down the mountain.
What’s instructive is this: the moment was given to me, it was effortless once it began, but I had to work to get there. I didn’t blow down the slope as I might a black diamond run, pulverizing the moguls as I blast over them. By making myself available (a little work) He met me there transforming the moment into a communion. I’d say that qualifies as a contemplative moment of authentic leisure.
Play is also a form of leisure – and it’s not just for kids! Play is purposeless fun, unstructured, imaginative re-creation. In this way, we participate in the “playful” nature of God. Is God playful?
GK Chesterton describes the glee and sheer delight he imagines God experiences in bringing-up the sun new and fresh each and every morning. Imagining further about the joviality of God, Chesterton surmises about the one quality too great for Christ to show while on earth. “I fancy”, he says, “it was His mirth.”
You might be thinking, “That all sounds super, but, seriously, how do I make this happen?”
You don’t. You can’t will authentic leisure into action. Aristotle says, “We work for leisure” (“It’s the center-point about which everything revolves.”). So, although when it’s happening, it’s effortless, we do have to make ourselves available, to create opportunities. Ultimately, however, leisure is given to you. It is rooted in divine worship – which is empty and hallow unless Our Lord comes to you in those moments.
Here comes the danger part: What happens if I don’t provide a platform for God to come to me in contemplative ways?
Here’s what’s at stake: A life without authentic leisure is not a life well-lived. A life of total work (plus the occasional cramming in of amusements) is dangerous!
Why? Because it is possible to derive satisfaction from “usefulness”. It’s possible for your existence to consist solely as a mere functionary. When you’re receiving plenty of kudos, promotions, positive feedback, financial rewards as a result of bringing your “A” game on a regular basis, you may fail to recognize you’ve diminished to the level of a working “unit”.
Culture of Death
Little do you detect the fact that your intellectual faculty is destitute and your soul has become utterly impoverished. This insidious, subtle progression is at the heart of the culture of death – that is, a culture which sees the human person not solely as an end in himself, but as the means to an end.
Commenting on the ancient understanding of leisure, Josef Pieper says, “The man who cannot enter into leisure renounces the claim inherent in his human dignity.”
Work for Work’s Sake
Is there a difference between the sloth of the Middle Ages who was too restless to embrace his dignity as a human person and the modern jet-set CEO? Could this even apply to a super busy homeschooling Mom? Could they both be in danger of impoverishing their souls?
Are we living well when we’re too busy:
- to gaze into our lover’s eyes for 10 minutes,
- to stop and drink in the beauty of a breathtaking landscape,
- to take time to savor a stunning sunset?
How do we live a lifestyle open to and inclusive of authentic leisure?
Here’s a few thoughts which might move you in the right direction:
- Take some quiet time to mull over Scriptural passages that have really touched your heart
- Find a spiritual writer who really speak to you
- Get acquainted with some of the classic spiritual authors of the Western Tradition (e.g., Bonaventure’s Soul’s Journey Into God, St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle)
- Take a solitary walk in beautiful surroundings and initiate an intimate dialogue with your Beloved
- Get together with friends for “no good reason” other than to enjoy their company
Only you can fashion authentic leisure for yourself, in conjunction with the One who is your End, the only One who will bring rest to your soul. As you consider the possibilities, you might follow the example of the ancient philosophers who asked themselves not,
“What ought I to do?”
Instead they pondered,
“What sort of person ought I to be?”