What could a text written in Germany well over a half century ago possibly teach us about our contemporary lives? For Josef Pieper, “leisure” properly understood is not just “sitting around,” but is a disposition of the heart and mind to receive the reality of the world as it is given to us – to receive life as a gift.
- Pieper reminds us that contemplative/meditative rest can gives rise to insight and innovation. In a knowledge economy, the efficacy of our work comes from great ideas, not necessarily how long we sit as our desks. And ideas tend to arise, as many of us know from experience and as neuroscientists are now supporting, when our minds are at rest. Think of the insights that emerge when you are driving or in the shower or out for a run. True leisure gives rise to insight and creativity.
- Knowing is not just analyzing, but attending in a receptive-contemplative-meditative way to the whole of reality. Pieper challenges the notion that all human knowing can be reduced to deduction, logic, measurement, and technique (what he calls ratio). Human knowing is also comprised of receptivity, listening to the being of things, relational knowledge (what he calls intellectus). We only know certain things, for example, by being in love. The depth of knowledge acquired in “being-with,” in “being-in-love,” cannot be quantified, measured, or captured by a technique. For Pieper, BOTH kinds of knowledge (technical and relational) are important to a life of flourishing.
- In a related manner, Pieper’s case for leisure reminds us of the indispensability of the humanities and the liberal arts in a STEM age. Science, technology, engineering, and math are certainly critical, but not at the expense of literature, the arts, philosophy, religion, history, and language. Pieper affirms a more holistic, wisdom vision for education.
- Pieper names one of the fundamental ills of our time – Acedia. Etymologically, the term acedia means “lack of care” and refers to a paralysis of the interior life. It is manifested in our constant restlessness and instability. It can mean doing everything (busyness) but the one thing we ought to be doing. In the monastic tradition, instability literally referred to the temptation of the monk to leave the cell, to acquire a change of scenery, as a superficial answer to a deeper interior instability. In contemporary life, it is characterized by the frenzy for novelty. Acedia rears its ugly head in the need to continually change one’s occupation, geographical location, or life commitments, and in smaller ways, by the restlessness of starting books without completing them, channel surfing, and the impulse to excessively check our inboxes and Facebook feeds.
- The cultivation of leisure is more relevant than ever in a “sabbath-less” society. If you’re entrenched in youth soccer like we are (or any equivalent), you know firsthand that the traditional times reserved for the sacred are no longer sacred! But leisure at its root, Pieper argues, is connected to the sacrifice and sacramentality of worship. The most intense form of festival connects creatures to the Creator. It is an experience not of utility or pragmatic results, but of the abundance and generosity of true wealth. The Sabbath is a day of rediscovering our true humanity and solidarity with the needy.
Randy Rosenberg is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Louis University.