This has become an almost annual ritual of mine, to reflect on the true meaning of time away from work demands and stress. This year, it takes on a whole new dimension.
Leisure? Surely you jest. That was the response of Dr. Regis Martin, Franciscan University of Steubanville theology professor, when I asked him to discuss Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture with me for an hour on radio. He was characteristically colorful. It went something like…you want me to discuss leisure and Pieper for an hour?!
The timing could hardly be more hilarious inasmuch as my time is so mortgaged already that I can barely fit lunch into my schedule, much less Josef Pieper. The irony is simply delicious. In fact it is so exquisitely delicious that I’ve decided to make time.
And so he did, and it aired this week. He said he probably had to give up breakfast and lunch to arrange the time to spend that hour with me discussing leisure, but it was worth it. When I shared the depth and gravity of my own personal demands these days, it took the whole conversation to a new level.
A little context…
We’ve seen earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, severe drought on a seemingly new scale…not to mention eruptions of life-altering situations on a more personal level. Dr. Martin is juggling the demands of a large and devoted family life with the traditional rigors of the academic life, and just barely keeping it in synch. I’ve been hosting a daily radio show and trying to write for print media and balance family needs beyond that, just when we learned my son has an eye tumor that requires highly specialized treatment with two trips to the east coast in the next month to the leading expert. Life has changed, and the dropoff of blog posts you’ve noticed here has been just one effect.
Which provides a good opportunity to think about what we consider ‘leisure’, oddly enough.
Pieper wrote that book in the devastating aftermath of the Second World War, in Germany. He said himself that such a time “seems, of all times, not to be a time to speak of ‘leisure.’”
We are engaged in the re-building of a house, and our hands are full. Shouldn’t all our efforts be directed to nothing other than the completion of that house?
…To “build our house” at this time implies not only securing survival, but also putting in order again our entire moral and intellectual heritage. And before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out immediately for…a defense of leisure.
Yes, he quotes Aristotle’s Politics in stating that “the ‘pivot’ around which everything turns is leisure.” Which is not what we commonly refer to as ‘idleness.’ And he quotes Kierkegaard as saying that the despair of the condition of acedia (also not idleness) “consists in someone ‘despairingly not wanting to be oneself.’”
The metaphysical-theologial concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself.
How can we face the desperate conditions of modern lives when we are not “at one” with ourselves? How do we know we aren’t? Especially when we don’t have the opportunity to be still and realize who we are?
Aha. Dr. Martin seizes the point. Leisure, he said, consists in “the ability to do nothing prodigiously,” a statement I committed to memory the moment I heard it. How absolutely counter-intuitive.
But the ability to “do nothing” (much less prodigiously), while not sitting well with us when we have so much to do and seem always to be behind, is necessary to find the interconnectedness of life and work and God and…order in the world.
To paraphrase Pieper…it’s easier for us to exert than to relax and detach, “even though the latter is effortless”
…this is the paradox that reigns over the attainment of leisure, which is at once a human and super-human condition. As Aristotle said of it: “man cannot live this way insofar as he is man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him.
Amen to that. If we can’t detach, be still, do nothing and be at one with ourselves to discern our purpose, what in the world are we going to do when trials and adversity come?
We know how to work energetically. We need to learn to do nothing prodigiously, and go deeply inward to find the source of our strength.