Leisure: A Misunderstood Activity

"This is the main question, with what activity ones leisure is filled."
(Aristotle, Politics, VIII, 3)

Jesus tells us, "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile." (Mk 6:31)

At first glance it sounds like he is saying, "Stop being such a workaholic. Take a break. Get a vacation." And maybe he is. But he cannot be referring to any form of relaxation whatever. Like the Good Shepherd in today's psalm, he wants to lead us to restful waters and refresh our souls. (Ps. 23: 2) You can't do that on just any beach.

Even to take time apart may be hard for us because of a society which places primary value on work. We can feel guilty if we take leisure time. What really matters is getting things accomplished. A person sometimes measures his worth by ability to produce - and get paid for it. Some of our young moms feel inferior to "working women." After all, they only spend twenty four hours a day caring for a child while the others earn money by doing such productive things as staring at a computer screen.

A famous Seattle entrepreneur made a statement which illustrates the "total work" mentality and how it undercuts the life of faith:

"Just in terms of allocation of time resources,
religion is not very efficient.
There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

In a minute I'll show what's wrong with that statement. First let me point out that defining ones value in terms of production and efficiency is not only contrary to the Gospel, it guts humanity.

Let's begin on a natural level. What really distinguishes us is not our ability to make things. Birds construct nests; beavers build dams. What constitutes us as human is our capacity to wonder. Socrates tried to evoke that from his fellow Athenians. He asked question after question to break thru their smug assurance, but not to make them doubt everything (like some post-modernist) but so they would return to the first step of philosophy: wonder.*

Philosophy starts with wonder. The great philosophers could pose disarming, childlike questions. Leibniz asked, "Why is there anything at all and not nothing?" A practical man might brush off the question as a waste of time. A reflective human being, however, cannot help think it worth much pondering.

Jesus invites us to spend some time wondering. He wants us to have true leisure - not the kind of enervating distractions Pascal calls diversions, but moments of actual tranquility and awe. "Come away...and rest a while." He's not talking about getting on a plane to Tibet or even driving up to Mount Rainier. You will probably have better luck in your own room or before the Blessed Sacrament.

The greatest instance of coming away with Jesus is what we are doing now - Sunday Mass. Even tho some babies may be fussing and few people entering and leaving, it is our most complete moment of intimacy with Jesus. It's the only thing we can take with us.

The man who said he could use his time more efficiently by not going to church on Sunday is a multi-millionaire. He made that statement - I assume fairly offhandedly - about a year ago. That year has gone by in a flash; I imagine even more quickly for such an important person. Almost as rapidlly he, like you and me, will have some serious illness and his enormous wealth will not buy his health back. Soon after he dies, all he has produced will be so much dust. What will endure is his relationship - or lack of relationship - with God. What appears inefficient now will be incalculably practical.

The great irony is that what seems most unproductive turns out to be the most practical - not just for eternity, but for this present life. Jesus taught his disciples to spend hours, even whole nights in prayer because he knew they would face tremendous apostolic stress - "people coming and going in great numbers and they had no opportunity to eat." (Mk 6:31b) Without having prayed intensely no one can adequately respond to such demands. John Wesley used to pray one hour at the beginning of each day, but sometimes he would say, "I have so much to do today I better pray for two hours."** I have noticed that when I neglect prayer, my ministry goes bad, but if I make a holy hour things fall into place.

Jesus' invitation stands: "Come away...and rest awhile."


*Josef Pieper makes this point eloquently in Leisure, The Basis of Culture. He argues persuavively that modern philosophy got off the tracks by substituting doubt for wonder. I encourage you to read (or re-read) this classic. It is a profound reflection on the malaise of modern society.

**Correction from a Methodist Pastor

A Million Dollars for Your TV

From Archives (16th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2018: Ephesians Week 2: He is Our Peace
2015: Building on Strength Week 3: Sacrament of Reconciliation
2012: The Way to Heaven
2009: Rest a While
2006: Come Away
2003: I Will Appoint Shepherds
2000: Leisure: A Misunderstood Activity

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