Thursday, 18 August 2011

Leisure: what we are here for

On holiday in France a couple of weeks ago, we wandered into an old, but still functioning monastery. In the gift shop I saw a book by the German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, called 'Le Loisir: La Fondation de la Culture'. I had read one or two of his works before, and this looked to be a promising title for a holiday, so I quickly ordered the English translation (Leisure: the Basis of Culture), and have been reading it for the past couple of days.

A lot of us think of holidays as a necessary break to re-charge our batteries, so we can shed our jaded end-of-year weariness and return to work refreshed and ready to go again. The problem with this view of things is that it assumes that 'work' is what we are here for, and leisure is secondary, something which only prepares us for more work. Holidays are there to stop us having breakdowns, and are good because they help make us better workers. We are really here to work, to labour and to produce.

What if it is the other way round? What if work is there to enable us to have time for leisure? What if we are here to holiday, and work is preparatory for leisure? The key question, of course, is what leisure means. For Pieper it doesn't just mean endless games of golf, watching TV, getting up late and eating lots more food than you really should. Nor is it a process of active, rational thinking, as if we are all to become professional philosophers, pondering the nature of being while we sit on the beach. It is something much richer than all that. Leisure is the ability to step outside normal life to reflect on it and everything else, and to celebrate it. It is to step outside the normal, regular world of work, and to see things you wouldn't otherwise see: bees, waves, rock formations, blades of grass, people's faces. Is is what Gregory the Great called: "the grace to see life whole." as Pieper puts it: "In leisure, man too celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good." (forgive the gender-specific language - it was written in 1947).

Leisure in a sense, therefore, is what we are here for. It is not just 'time off' however. Leisure gives the opportunity for 'contemplation', a more passive and receptive mode of being than 'thinking'. It gives an opportunity for wonder at the nature of things, a realisation again of the miracle that there is anything here at all, and that what is here, despite riots, economic crises and tyrants struggling to hold onto power, is good. It also gives opportunity for 'celebration': the reminder and enjoyment of life as something not earned by our work and productivity, but freely given. So, if eating too much isn't the point, long, leisurely, relaxed meals with friends or family is.

Yet Pieper also has another valuable insight - that leisure depends on worship. Work is productive, focussed on results, ends, and If it is to be more than 'time off', preparing us to dive back into work again, resulting quite often, let's be honest, in a boredom that wants to be back at work again to fill the absence, leisure needs to begin with a sense that there is something more than work, chores, busyness, 'stuff'. When worship is missing, when we can no longer bow down before a God who is bigger, more mysterious and wonderful than we are, when we (or even the physical creation we can see) are the sum and pinnacle of all that there is, dullness results: "The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost." Worship is in a sense pointless. It is not a means to an end, it does not produce anything: "the act of worship sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns". Worship lifts us out of our ordinary lives and makes leisure possible, and vice versa: In worship we are "transported out of the weariness of daily labour into an unending holiday, carried away out of the straitness of the workaday world into the heart of the universe." Worship and leisure belong together. That is why we have Sabbath. Only worship makes leisure possible and leisure makes art, learning, education and culture possible.

So if you are on holiday, make are you don't manically run around doing too much. Don't forget to say your prayers. And make sure there is time for proper contemplation, seeing things you miss the rest of the time. And if you are not, then make sure there is some time today, this week (that's what Sabbath is for) for true leisure. For without it, we are missing something vital in being human.

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