One of the things the Coronavirus pandemic has shown us is that our society, indeed the whole world that is influenced in any way by western culture, has been too busy. Chances are, I don’t need to tell you that: it is more than likely evidenced in your own life, as it is in mine.
I read an article yesterday that was sent to me by a friend who is a monk in Pennsylvania. It is entitled “Leisure in the Life of the Christian”, and appeared in The Catechetical Review, Issue No. 6.2. In that article, the author, Simone Rizkallah, a Roman Catholic lay worker, wrote about the meaning of leisure. She quotes Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, wherein he writes that leisure is a “mental and spiritual attitude, a condition of the soul, an inward calm, of silence, of not being ‘busy’ and letting things happen.”
Since we tend to define leisure as the things we do when we are not working, this might seem like an apt definition by our standards. But, if you dig deeper, there is far more to it than that. Rizkallah suggests, echoing Pieper, that leisure is not the ancillary activity we undertake when we’re not doing the ‘main thing’ of life – working – but is intended to be the centre of life.
Talk about countercultural!
That doesn’t mean that our work is unimportant; quite the opposite. But our work does not, and should not, define us. (By implication, therefore, our lack of work ought not to define us, either – a word of grace for those who are currently unemployed!) But we have tended, in our culture, to see leisure as entirely secondary to our work. Indeed, as followers of Jesus, our true work is actually the practice of prayer and faith. As Rizkallah writes, “without the silence, space, and time for the cultivation of leisure, I cannot pray well. I cannot wait well. And then I may not be in a prime position to recognize ‘when and how’ [God] arrives.”
I’m a big fan of etymology, the study of word meanings. I’ve been fascinated by it for a long time. The article I read noted that sloth is actually quite contrary to leisure: “Slothful people are idle, restless, agitated, and often workaholics. They are spiritually lazy and easily bored.”
Yikes. Not quite the same definition as we have given it over time, eh?
Again, echoing Pieper, Rizkallah notes that the word ‘leisure’ in its Greek and Latin roots actually translates – virtually transliterates – to the word ‘school’. Now, I don’t know many students who think school is leisurely, at least by our culture’s definition of leisure, but it’s where the notion of the liberal arts came from: “[e]ducation was for the sake of (human) freedom, perfection, and salvation; not for the sake of work. It seems while the West has largely forgotten this connection, its enemies have not forgotten. For example, the terrorist group of Nigeria, Boko Haram (which means “Western Education is forbidden”), is one such example.
One more etymological gem: the root of the word ‘culture’ is ‘cult’, which refers to worship. Cult doesn’t have the same meaning in North America, where we see it as a hardline religious or ideological group that expects abject obedience from its adherents. (There is an exception: French-speaking churches in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada will still refer to their worship gatherings as la culte.)
So if leisure is the basis of culture, then leisure is the basis of worship, at least in one sense. But what do we worship? Money? That breeds materialism, which focuses on the economy rather than on human dignity. Power? That leads to a culture that political and even violent, says Rizkallah. Honour? We’ll be centred on vanity. Pleasure? We’re headed for hedonism. But if our culture centres on the worship of God, that’s revolutionary.
I say all this to suggest that perhaps this season wherein we have far fewer options to entertain us might be an invitation from the Lord to reframe how we see our lives, and how we contribute to the culture around us.
Are you spending more time in worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, even though we can’t yet gather together to do so? Are you spending more time in service to others in Jesus’ name, aiding the vulnerable and the needy?
Or are you hankering for things to get back to ‘normal’, so you can crowd out the opportunity to face these challenging questions with more busyness?
Spend some time pondering that today, while you still have the opportunity.
“Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4.21-24, NLT).