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Leisure: Rest & Virtue vs Distraction & Dissipation

October 31, AD 2017 0 Comments

“Regret is a waste of time.” Dream said.
“No, I think regret is when people realise they’ve wasted all the time they’ve had.” Chris argued.
— Mary Borsellino, The Boy Who Gave Away His Birthday

The Christian life is a harmonization of the contemplative and the active life. We see from Genesis that God rested after creating the universe, and sanctified this day of rest. The Douay-Rheims Bible explains:

“He rested”: That is, he ceased to make or create any new kinds of things. Though, as our Lord tells us, John 5:17,”He still worketh”, viz., by conserving and governing all things, and creating souls.

In ancient Rome and Greece, leisure was a luxury afforded to the free man.

In Athens, leisure was one of the marks of the Athenian gentleman: the time to do things right, unhurried time, time to discuss in.
— “Otium“, Wikipedia

We see that from classical pagan antiquity and Judeo-Christian tradition, times of rest were to be taken seriously. Times of otium or σχολή (skholē, from which we derive the word “school”) were valuable in rejuvenating oneself and considering how best to re-engage with society, in negōtium (non-leisure: business and politics.). Philosophers like Cicero spent their otium writing profound books which are still valued today. They used their retirement to consider what constituted “the good life” (εὐδαιμονία – eudaimonia) which would cultivate a healthy civic life that would ensure the flourishing of individuals and the country.

Virtual Vices

In contrast, today we usually fritter away our times of rest. We are absorbed in television screens, computer screens, smartphone screens or movie screens. Instead of spending our precious time interacting with our loved ones, enjoying nature or a good book, we often give in to the siren call of pixelated pleasures. Before we know it, the day has turned into dusk, and we are no better for it. Indeed, we may be all the worse:

… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.
— Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?“, The Atlantic

Twenge notes that instead of drinking, driving, or dating, teenagers are trapped in their bedrooms, slaves to their smartphones. Their social lives are now conducted online, assisted by the addictive allure of “likes” and “followers”. This has precipitously increased the rates of depression and suicide.

Meanwhile, the widespread availability of pornography online is wreaking havoc across the globe, contributing to domestic abuse in India and the demographic winter in Japan.

Bodily Blessedness

As Catholics, we believe in the Incarnation of Christ, and the resurrection of the body. Unlike Gnostics, we treasure the physical world, which God created good and which He died to redeem.

… the Church does not come with a mere message. The Church is meant to be a Sacrament, an embodied manifestation of a transcendent reality that, by virtue of its transcendence, escapes full articulation.
— Dr. Matthew Tan, “On Liking the Gospel: the Church and New Media“, The Divine Wedgie

Sabbath Sacrileges

Maria von Trapp, whose life was memorialized in The Sound of Music (1965), wrote a magnificent reflection: “The Land Without a Sunday“.

She contrasts the traditional restful, holy Sundays celebrated in Austria before World War II with communist Russia’s destruction of the 7-day week:

“Instead of a Sunday,” Baron K. told us, “the Russians have a day off. This happens at certain intervals which vary in different parts of the country. First they had a five-day week, with the sixth day off, then they had a nine-day work period, with the tenth day off; then again it was an eight-day week. What a difference between a day off and a Sunday! The people work in shifts. While one group enjoys its day off, the others continue to work in the factories or on the farms or in the stores, which are always open. As a result the over-all impression throughout the country was that of incessant work, work, work.”

Maria von Trapp goes on to voice her astonishment at the desecration of Sundays in the USA. She discovered the sad cause:

The climax of our discoveries about the American Sunday was reached when a lady exclaimed to us with real feeling, “Oh, how I hate Sunday! What a bore!” I can still hear the shocked silence that followed this remark. The children looked hurt and outraged, almost as if they expected fire to rain from heaven. Even the offender noticed something, and that made her explain why she hated Sunday as vigorously as she did. It explained a great deal of the mystery of the American Sunday.

“Why,” she burst out, “I was brought up the Puritan way. Every Saturday night our mother used to collect all our toys and lock them up. On Sunday morning we children had to sit through a long sermon which we didn’t understand; we were not allowed to jump or run or play.” When she met the unbelieving eyes of our children, she repeated, “Yes, honestly–no play at all.” Finally one of ours asked, “But what were you allowed to do?”

“We could sit on the front porch with the grownups or read the Bible. That was the only book allowed on Sunday.” And she added: “Oh, how I hated Sunday when I was young. I vowed to myself that when I grew up I would do the dirtiest work on Sunday, and if I should have children, they would be allowed to do exactly as they pleased. They wouldn’t even have to go to church.”

Redemptive Rest

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God.
— 1 Corinthians 10:31

Instead of “the Benedict Option” or “the Francis Option“, one of my friends is a wholehearted proponent of “the Tudor Option” (referring to the early Tudor period). In medieval days before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, redistributing national wealth at the expense of the peasantry, peasants celebrated over 200 holy days each year.

… economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year. …

When workers fought for the eight-hour workday, they weren’t trying to get something radical and new, but rather to restore what their ancestors had enjoyed before industrial capitalists and the electric lightbulb came on the scene. Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”
— Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you“, Reuters

This was curtailed in the Elizabethan era following Henry VIII:

In the Middle Ages, all of these feast days were excuses for a day off, Popish ceremonies, and general idleness. The thrifty Protestants, of course, disapproved, and limited the observance of many of the feast days. They remained on the calendar, but people were enjoined not to stop working.
— Walter Nelson, “Elizabethan Calendar“, Mass Historia

As Catholics, we recognize that all time is given to us as a sacred gift from God, with the responsibilities of growing in holiness and serving our neighbor. Let us neither waste our leisure time, nor allow it to be taken up by work. We must rather keep our days of rest holy, spending them in fruitful ways which will cultivate our souls and bring true joy.

My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O, my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today!
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Image: PD-US

Article originally published at Aleteia.

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About the Author:

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a 28-year-old law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She blogs at http://signum-crucis.tumblr.com/ and http://allthingscatholic.tumblr.com/.