Why Leisure Suits You

The following article by Mike Aquilina won 3rd place in the Best Feature Article in a General Interest category of the 2012 Catholic Press Association awards. It was originally featured in the July/August 2011 issue of Lay Witness. Congratulations to author Mike Aquilina for this honor!

I have no business writing this article.

I am a fairly typical American male, a provider for a family, and I experience the ordinary run of anxieties about my ability to pay the bills in the short and long term. People deal with such worries in different ways. Me? I’m always looking for opportunities to increase my productivity and gain ever-greater efficiency.

I am the child of hard-working parents, my father a welder, my mother a garment worker. My grandmother’s last words to my mother were “Work hard, Mary.” So my workaholic tendencies arise from nature and nurture, genes and culture.

As I said, I have no business writing an article about leisure. But business isn’t everything, and so I need to write it.

About a quarter-century ago, when I was in my twenties, I was working for a fast-growing corporation in a field of what was then an emerging technology. I found the work interesting and rewarding. I got regular promotions and raises. I was also a serious Catholic, though, and it kind of bothered me that I wasn’t finding time for regular prayer.

So I went looking for a spiritual director, and I found my way to a priest of Opus Dei. The name Opus Dei attracted me because I knew from high-school Latin that opus meant “work,” and I was all about my work.

So I geared up to talk with him about office politics, the perils of ambition, workplace temptations, and so on. But he had other plans.

He looked at me with the most genial smile and asked: “What kind of vacation are you planning for your family this summer?”

I figured this was small talk to ease us into the really important stuff. So I spoke vaguely about our vague intention to hit a state park for a long weekend.

He kept smiling that big, genial smile as he responded: “A stone gives more.”

The conversation, and my spiritual direction, had taken an unexpected turn. Before a half-hour was up, I’d begun to see that leisure was not the same as laziness. It could be something holy and something integrally human.

Business Before Leisure: God and the Gardeners

God made us for work. When He created the first man and woman, He commanded them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

We were “put” on earth to work the earth. We’re hardwired for labor, and we won’t be satisfied unless we fulfill God’s command.

Yet that’s not the end of the story. For work itself is ordered to something greater. God’s six days of “labor,” His six days of creation, are ordered to a Sabbath of rest. “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Gen. 2:2).

Historical critics arch an eyebrow at the line and dismiss it as anthropomorphism—the tendency of primitive peoples to project human qualities onto God. But I think the Church Fathers and early rabbis had a clearer sense of the sacred text and its sacred meaning.

Our work is service due to God. He commanded it, and it’s necessary (by His design) for the continuing creation and sanctification of the world. But work is merely preliminary, and it’s secondary in importance. Our more important service is worship, and the mark of worship is leisure: the seventh day. As one of the ancient rabbis put it, the Sabbath is “last in creation, first in intention.”

The critical scholars are right about one thing at least. If God is who we say He is—almighty and unchanging—He doesn’t grow tired, and He never needs to rest. If He did “take a rest” in the Genesis narrative, He did so, like a good father, in order to show His children how to do it. He was modeling the leisure He wanted us to keep, and He institutionalized it in the Sabbath.

It’s almost as if God is daring us to trust Him—to let go of the plow (or the computer keyboard, or the tool chest) and rest in confidence that the Creator who started the job can finish it just fine, with or without our eight- or ten-hour days. When we rest on Sunday, when we schedule our vacation, when we make ample time to look away from the computer screen and look into the eyes of our children, we are showing God that we trust Him. It’s an outward sign of our innermost faith. Vacation is a sort of sacrament.

Give it a Rest, Already

There are, of course, benefits to vacation in the natural order. Our bodies need rest. Our minds need rest. Aristotle was a practical man, and he saw the benefits of leisure. He says, in the Nicomachean Ethics, “Since we cannot work forever, we need relaxation.” Rest, he said, is “a means to activity.” Modern research has confirmed that employees who rest are indeed more productive than employees who work without ceasing.

As believers, we don’t deny such benefits in the natural order; but, again, we recognize that there’s something more to the story.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his profound little book on The Sabbath, observed that Aristotle got things exactly backward: To the biblical mind . . . labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. . . . The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living [1].

We anxious providers can toil away endlessly and forget why we’re toiling. “I’m doing it for my children,” we protest. “My work is an expression of my love.” Again, there’s much truth to that, and I don’t want to dampen the ardor of anyone’s love. Yet we should also keep in mind the effects of original sin on all human expressions of love. To borrow a phrase from the self-help books, love can go “toxic” on us, if we let it. We can turn beautiful, God-given expressions of love, like sex and work, into self-serving addictions. We work more and more and more, not just because we want to feed the family and do God’s will, but because we like the adrenaline high, the prestige, the feeling of superiority over our co-workers, or the brute pride in productivity.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for healthy competitiveness. I think the world would be a much better place if we all approached our workdays with holy ambition in overdrive. But the adjectives “healthy” and “holy” are important qualifiers.

My long-ago spiritual director was right. Our vacations are an important test of the condition of our souls.

Don’t Forget to Pack your Faith!

There are some, of course, who err in the opposite direction. My mind replays the band Loverboy’s hit single from 1981: “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” Some people do pass their weeks for the sake of the freedom to party all weekend. Some people work overtime for months just to afford a freewheeling week aboard a cruise ship. Such party animals are really as far as the workaholic from the true experience of Sabbath rest.

In leisure we take delight in creation, not just because it makes us feel good, but because it gives glory to God. On Sunday, for example, we enjoy the company of spouse and children, not simply because that’s what’s on the schedule for Sunday, but because we have freed our minds to see these people as they are, and see them for what they are.

As Christians we have the obligation to worship on Sunday, and our great and obligatory act of worship is called the Eucharist. The name comes from the Greek eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.”

When we attend a Sunday Mass with our families, we have a God-given chance to see a spouse, a child, a parent, a grandchild as a gift from God, and we have a chance to thank God for the gift.

God doesn’t need our thanks, and He doesn’t need our worship. If He has commanded these actions, it is because He knows we need them. He knows they’re good for us.

Worship should be, for our families, a sine qua non of every Sunday. It should also be an important component in our vacations. I’m not saying you should vacation like nuns. (Unless you’re a nun, in which case you really should.) Vacation needn’t feel like a novena to our kids. But we should take pains to avoid excursions to places where it will be impossible or extremely arduous to get to Mass on Sundays or holy days. We should also make sure not to schedule activities that will crowd out our Mass attendance. Today we have access to great databases like MassTimes.org, which will direct us to the nearest churches and chapels. Still, it’s best to call ahead, as sometimes parishes lag a little in updating their online schedules.

We should also do the research and find vacation spots that will not compromise our morals. Some beaches have a better moral atmosphere than others. Same goes for amusement parks. It helps to ask more experienced Christian parents and grandparents. They’re usually happy to answer when you ask them about their happiest vacations.

And if you have the discipline to live it in a leisurely way, consider a “staycation”—an extended time when you and the family can take day trips to local attractions.

The Last Word on Leisure

Leisure requires work on our part, a little planning, a little expense. But this, too, is labor for the sake of a Sabbath. We toil now so that we can relax for a while and let God work in our leisure.

To leave work on time—to forego the optional Sunday shift— to use vacation time rather than piling it up—these are acts of trust. And they are tithes paid to God, simple and small tokens acknowledging that He is really the owner of all our hours of all our days.

Please understand: I have not come here to induce a guilt trip on hard-working parents. For the sake of our families, we need to work hard.

But we also need to know when to give it a rest.

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote the book on Leisure, as Rabbi Heschel wrote the book on The Sabbath. Pieper noted that the biblical phrase usually translated as “Be still, and know that I am God” can also be translated “Have leisure, and know that I am God” (see Ps. 46:10).

Leisure is an opportunity to draw close to God, in Himself and in others, in relaxed study and in prayer, in delight in His creation and in the delightful contingency of a shared ride on the roller coaster.

Leisure is a notoriously unproductive thing, when judged by industrial standards, but it does produce such moments, and such moments are holy.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1990), p. 14.

Mike Aquilina is husband to Terri and father to six children. He is executive vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He has written more than a dozen books, including Angels of God, Love in the Little Things, and The Fathers of the Church. He blogs at www.fathersofthechurch.com.


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