Man was made to work, even more so, to rest. Rest is not only what’s left, after one has done their job and fulfilled their various duties. It’s not just to stop working, taking a momentary pause, as it were, to refresh and recharge, preparing for future endeavours. Neither is it simply to spend time, smugly enjoying the hard-earned fruits of one’s labour. 

Rest is also a right. But to what? 

Firstly, to leisure, what the ancient Greeks called “schole”, from which the modern English word “school” comes. So one went to “school” not for credentialing or job-training, but to learn how to properly engage in leisure, which was the mark of a cultivated man. Obviously, this opportunity wasn’t open to everyone, only to a privileged few (citizens or land-owning males) who had free time because they didn’t have to carry out servile tasks in farming, artisanry, and commerce. They could count on other people to do this for them. Such “division of labour” provided this class of school-going elites the chance to take part in apparently endless discussions about their natural surroundings and, above all, the city, giving rise to philosophy and politics. Note that it wasn’t at all necessary, to rest or to take part in leisure, to travel very far to some exotic place. Their idea of a holiday or vacation was very much a “staycation”; in any case, always within the confines of the city.  

A unique achievement of the Judeo-Christian tradition is to have extended the right to rest to all human beings, not only to the elites, as had occurred in perhaps all ancient civilisations. This was done in obedience to a divine precept admonishing everyone, represented by the chosen people, to imitate God who rested on the seventh day, after finishing the work of creation. So rest, now, was much more than just engaging in philosophical discussions, as the ancient Greeks did. It means to do like God does and to contemplate, leaving maybe pressing, but in the end ephemeral concerns aside. To rest is to try to live, in the measure possible, in God’s eternal present. 

How are we to do that? 

We rest by contemplating nature, which delights the senses and inspires the mind: “God looked upon all that He had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). We also rest by entering in friendly dialogue with fellow human beings, starting with members of our own families, discovering with wonder similarities and differences among us of amazing richness. Yet more than anything else, we rest by contemplating God’s mystery, at once transcendent and intimate, in prayer. None more beautiful, none more powerful, none greater; the truest of friends, whose words, in loving conversation, at the same time satisfies and makes one hunger for more.

Republished with permission from Alejo José G. Sison’s blog, Work, Virtues, and Flourishing

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...