The screen went black, the credits rolled, and in the lower right corner a suggestion: “You might also like…”
My husband and I sat in silence, mournful at the repose of our favorite evening activity for the last month. We eyed the suggested show.
“Shall we?” I proposed, but I knew the answer. Because this is the only leisurely activity the two of us can muster after a day of work. We pour energy and cups of coffee into our jobs until our eyes are sore and, whatever sorry scraps are left, try to piece together an evening. Meals become basic. Discussions: brief. Activities: Netflix. Any proposed diversion from this “leisure” is met with the excuse, “I just really need to unwind.” And so we “unwind,” with a ninth run of the entire Office series until we collapse into our beds with half-breathed prayers.
I think a lot of us get into a rut like this. We become so exhausted by our work, mission, or vocation that leisure becomes secondary and pitiful. Why do we do this? Why, in my free time and in the company of my husband, would I lose 30 minutes to Facebook analysis of a distant acquaintance, or a show I’ve seen a thousand times?
A friend passed along the writings of one man with some insight on this: Josef Pieper, German Catholic philosopher, has the answer and the antidote.
In his book Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Pieper explains that leisure is distorted by our culture’s unhealthy relationship to labor. Because we base our sole personal esteem in what we reap or achieve from work, we start to value our life for its production. What have we accomplished? What have we crossed off our to-do lists? And it is this utilitarian mindset that makes life outside of work secondary. Instead of being the opus of our day, it is treated as the recuperative hours before another day of work.
True leisure, Pieper explains, should be an “attitude of the mind, a condition of the soul.” This “condition” leads us to greater contemplation about the meaning of life and our purpose in it, but more than that, when properly pursued, leisure can be “worship.”
Pieper clarifies by explaining that the most basic expression of worship is the act of “celebration,” and this can be in its highest expression during Mass in the celebration of the Eucharist, but it can also be in a delicious home-cooked meal with family, a vase full of freshly picked wildflowers, a run in the rain, a peaceful moment of silence.
This haughty and ambitious sort of leisure can be difficult to obtain on a Friday night after a 50-hour work week, so binge-watching or happy hours can seem like just the leisure we’re looking for. It is this work-worn weariness that lets us piddle away these hours without intention. We think we are recuperating, but we are actually impoverishing our spirit. Pieper explains, “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.”
The “spiritual power to be leisurely” is life giving and energizing. It is a rich hour of mystery, a moment of awe, a minute of ecstasy. It heightens the senses, lifts our hopes, enriches our relationships, and revitalizes us for another day of work. But most importantly, it leads us to contemplation of God.
My husband and I challenged ourselves to a “week of Pieper” to pull ourselves from our leisure rut. For one week, we would break our habits and be intentional and creative with our free time. At first, it was daunting and exhaustive. I felt myself yearning for the easy rest and not the challenge. In time, however, we found deliberate leisure far more reviving and restful.
We took small steps. One night it was simply picking a new recipe for dinner, setting the table with candles, pouring a glass of wine and trying to savor a meal together. Another night we challenged ourselves to watch an old classic movie we hadn’t seen. After rolling to our weekly happy hour with friends we all took free dancing lessons downtown. And little by little we felt our lives started to embody the sort of celebration of life that felt something like Pieper’s notion of worship. Our conversation was spiritual, our reflection contemplated grander things, and our activity became a prayer. For each activity we swapped out we merely asked ourselves the question Pieper proposed, “Does this make me more disposed to worship God?”
Man was not made for work; work was made for man. We were designed to live life as an expression of worship. We were made for music that lifts the spirits, poetry that pulls on the heartstrings, humor that brings laughter to tears, meals to commune over, stories to enthrall, silent moments to daydream and anything else that helps one lift their eyes up from their daily labor to wonder at the beauty and mystery of God.