“Be still [act leisurely], and know that I am God”– Psalm 46:10
Sometimes at night while reading in bed, I fidget. When my wife spots my twirling feet out of the corner of her eye, she lets out an exasperated sigh and turns to me with a wry smile.
“I’m just not getting into this book,” I admit, letting my arms and A History of the Whig Party fall to my lap.
“You don’t have to read it, you know,” she reminds me.
“But I haven’t given it a fair chance yet,” I say, and then heave the book back up to my nose.
While generally I don’t like doing things I don’t find that interesting, I’m a sucker for reading widely for the sake of personal growth rather than for enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong – personal growth has its place. But I try to remind myself, as I’ve resolved to do in this upcoming year, I shouldn’t regard learning merely in a utilitarian, pragmatic way.
The pursuit of learning can also be an end in itself, like pursuing art for art’s sake. After all, as Aristotle said, the best activities are the most useless. Ironically, Aristotle’s insight taken to its logical conclusion means that worshipping God is the most useless activity we could do – precisely because it’s the best activity we could do.
For the sons and daughters of the god of utility (sinners in the hands of a pragmatic god, as it were), this is a stumbling block. To be sure, some of us are apt to store up treasures on earth rather than to make money merely to serve life’s necessities. But even the latter is one of the worst activities we could do.
I’m not saying making money doesn’t have its place. Otherwise, we couldn’t provide for our most basic needs, and for some of our wants. But ideally, making money should involve going about our jobs in a leisurely spirit, which gives our work meaning. By leisurely spirit, I mean a spirit of contemplation, or an awareness of God’s presence.
This kind of leisure, as German philosopher Josef Pieper explains in his 1952 book-length essay Leisure: the Basis of Culture, should be our highest aim. In fact, leisure is tantamount to divine worship.
So, in the profoundest sense, true leisure is not about engaging in trivial amusements, or merely refreshing our bodies and minds to prepare to serve pragmatic ends. Rather, Pieper argues, leisure is a state of being enabling us to be more sensitive to divine reality. It’s a kind of prayer, a resting in and an awareness of the mystery of God while engaged in all the aspects of our daily lives.
“Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation,” Pieper writes.
Sound daunting? It is for me. I have to work hard at acting leisurely. But I know that enjoying, for instance, a Glenn Gould or Louis Armstrong album on my turntable while contemplating the beauty of the music is better than listening to the album merely for the sake of becoming a more well-rounded person.
Indeed, doing an activity – even work – in a leisurely spirit, in an awareness of God’s presence, is one of the most useless activities we could do. Yet such leisure ennobles us, and because it’s rooted in divine worship, it serves as the source of a rightly ordered culture.
“The sphere of leisure,” Pieper writes, “is not less than the sphere of culture in so far as that word means everything that lies beyond the utilitarian world. Culture lives on religion through divine worship. And when culture itself is endangered, and leisure is called in question, there is only one thing to be done: to go back to the first and original source.”
Doubtless, these are prophetic words for our materialist times. What many today would call leisure is really a kind of acedia that stands athwart Pieper’s view of true leisure and undermines the Church and the world at large. True leisure, on the other hand, serves as the foundation for building up culture and enriching our lives.
So when tempted to slog through A History of the Whig Party in bed at night merely for a utilitarian end (i.e., personal growth) rather than to read it in a leisurely spirit of contemplation on the workings of God in history, I resolve this year to remember my highest calling, which is to act leisurely.
When I do, I expect I won’t fidget as much in bed, and I’ll help relieve my poor wife of her exasperation over my twirling feet.