Leisure, the Basis of Culture, the elixir of Life!
At this time of the year, holiday season, with the feast of Our Lady of the Harvest almost upon us the focus for many is on the business of holiday activities, what we term leisure. The hope is that during this time, in the diversion from routine we are recreated, renewed and ready to start afresh.
In teaching days, I often enjoyed the wry comment that the three best things about the job were June, July and August. Time to recharge the batteries and reinvent oneself with energy for the new term. I remember observing a colleague who had just returned from sabbatical. Upon return he was completely transformed and energised, literally given a second wind that made him much more effective as a teacher and much happier in himself.
In our world people are measured by what they do, what job or status they have, what they have achieved. Modern work routine is not only a 9-5 job, but because of the possibility of being contactable through various virtual platforms, the expectation now is that availability is a 24-7 reality.
While I remember the wisdom of my grandmother who often warned that “the devil makes work for idle hands”, for many the opposite is closer to the mark with “all work and no play making Jack a dull boy”. Maybe there was a serious note to the words of Oscar Wilde that work is indeed the curse of the drinking class!
The benefits of work are obviously good in so many ways, but it need not take over and become an all pervading reality that has the potential to dominate our lives. The cynical phrase above the gates in Auschwitz, a play on the biblical words that the truth will set you free, that work will set you free leaves much to be desired, as an end in itself.
So, what is the substance of this elusive ideal we term “leisure” that is a welcome panacea for putting a “pep in the step”? As a child I so loved everything that was associated with Leisure Land in Galway, swimming, slides, bumper cars, crazy golf, amusements, a concert venue, the seaside nearby. Time spent there was like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it never lasted long enough. While teaching, the bank holiday weekend of May was invariably spent on school tour to Euro Disney, a place that specialised in bottling happiness for all that visited. While working as a priest in Los Angeles during the holidays I often said Mass at a complex called Leisure World, a gated community for the elderly. The aim there was to provide as much stimulation and activity for senior citizens to keep them active and encourage maximum enjoyment in retirement. One of the big growth industries is the leisure industry and during the lockdown and this year of staycation many are exploring seriously what this burgeoning industry has to offer.
I love the wisdom of the phrase in Connemara Irish with the word for leisure being “i do chónaí” (living). The is a sense in the Irish version of the psalms for resting in God’s presence; “ar fónamh”. Leisure, to live, to rest in the moment and savour the moment of enjoyment is at the heart of what leisure can offer us.
A German philosopher called Joseph Pieper wrote a book called “Leisure, The Basis of Culture” in the aftermath of the second world war. At that time he felt the pervasiveness of work was taking over and that many were suffering because of this. In his analysis this was leading to modern restlessness and despair. People were living to work and not working to live. In his book he traces the wisdom on this down through the ages. He analyses the meaning of leisure, which in its etymology has connotations of freedom and being schooled or educated. He looks at the balance between the dignity that work brings and the importance of having time off to recreate. For Pieper leisure is not idleness, but an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul that fosters receptivity to both physical and spiritual realities. For him true leisure encourages us to be open to the benefits of silence, contemplation and insight and receptivity and openness to truth.
According to Pieper the frenetic, relentless striving of the modern has the potential to destroy our whole culture and our very selves. His work was written several decades ago. How much more relevant his message is for us today?
So make sure you don’t feel guilty as you enjoy the God given leisure of life. To paraphrase the good book of the scriptures eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die! Ecclesiastes 8:16, Isaiah 22:13.
Fintan Monahan is bishop of Killaloe