Dr. Paul Griffiths recently made the surprising claim that Christians don’t need leisure:
The deleterious effects of narcissism are evident in the work of many, Christian and otherwise, who advocate leisure as good for us, appropriate to us, necessary for us, a blessing to us, an aid to contemplation, the foundation of culture, and so on. Christianity is more bracing than this: we Christians think, when we are thinking clearly, that between conception and death in this cataclysmically damaged world we should neither expect nor seek leisure. What we should expect, and will certainly find, is the double curse of death and work. Each of those involves pain, so we should expect a lot of that as well. Our task as Christians is not to look for islands of leisure-for-contemplation exempt from the eddy and flow of work and suffering and death.
First of all, I’d like to say that I agree with Dr. Griffiths on the devastating effects of narcissism and that we certainly should not seek exemption from work or suffering. But I couldn’t disagree more on equating leisure and escape.
Before responding further, it’s important to look at Griffiths’ solution to the problem of focusing on leisure:
Two things, in the fallen world, do have a part to play. They are work and prayer, or, if you prefer (and probably this is a better thing to say) work and worship. St. Benedict’s command, ora et labora has this right. Work is the temporary remedy for the damage done by the Fall; and worship (prayer) our only anticipation of and proleptic participation in life eternal. Neither is leisured. Both are relational. Neither is narcissistic. Both divert narcissism’s self-fascination outward into other-directed action.
He claims that neither work and prayer are leisure, but St. Benedict specifically named the monastery as a place dedicated to leisure: “a school of the Lord’s service” (dominici scola servitii).The word school itself indicates a place of leisure (skole = leisure in Greek), precisely the kind of escape from the normal world of drudgery, which grinds the person down and leaves little time for contemplation. True, the monks worked and were called to work hard (though even St. Benedict recognized that they might hire out their work), but this only reinforces the necessary relationship between work and leisure.
According to Josef Pieper we work for leisure. We work so as to be able to create the conditions to enter into the higher things. We must care for the body and its needs, serve our family and society, and enjoy the rest that comes from accomplishing these goals. Pieper locates worship as the highest act of leisure as we stop our mundane tasks and engage in public ceremony to praise and thank God and affirm the goodness of the life He has given us. We can also understand personal prayer as an expression of the leisure needed for contemplation. Aquinas recognizes how prayer lifts us above our common distractions, though if only briefly before we are pulled back again:
The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long on account of the weakness of nature, because human weakness weighs down the soul to the level of inferior things: and hence it is that when, while praying, the mind ascends to God by contemplation, of a sudden it wanders off through weakness (ST II-II, q. 83, a. 13, ad 2).
In both ways—public worship and private prayer—we see how leisure enables us to pause from the mundane course of things to participate in higher realities. Work done well enables us to devote time to the most important things, the things of truth, beauty, and goodness.
I honestly wonder if by leisure, Griffiths takes aim at something more akin to free time or recreation. His warning would make more sense at least, if directed at stopping Christians from wasting the time needed for prayer. Even still, we need time to relax and enjoy ourselves in ordered ways with others. As Pope Francis said:
Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society (Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, 90).
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Vienna, Austria, offered an important clarification on how we make use of leisure, noting that it should not be directionless, but truly focused on encountering the Lord.
“Sine dominico non possumus!” Without the Lord and without the day that belongs to him, life does not flourish. Sunday has been transformed in our Western societies into the week-end, into leisure time. Leisure time is something good and necessary, especially amid the mad rush of the modern world; each of us knows this. Yet if leisure time lacks an inner focus, an overall sense of direction, then ultimately it becomes wasted time that neither strengthens nor builds us up. Leisure time requires a focus – the encounter with him who is our origin and goal.
Benedict’s clarification, though, only points even more to the need for leisure, not as killing time or as an escape, but as the freedom to meet God. I agree with Griffiths on the need to focus on prayer and work. Rather than seeing them as an alternative to leisure, we Christians need rightly ordered leisure to give purpose to our work and tomake space for prayer.