More than Couch Potatoes

What does it mean when we say that man is made in the image of God?  Classically this has been interpreted as man, through his spiritual soul, being able to perform the God-like activities of knowing and loving.  It is this natural “God-likeness” that gives us dignity above any other visible creature.  The Catechism defines man as the only visible creature who is “‘able to know and love his creator’. … and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity…” (CCC 356).  But we are also God-like in our activities.  We image God most prominently in marriage and in our work.  But there is a third way that we image God that often gets overlooked—leisure.  When God rested on the 7th Day He did so not because He was tired but because He took delight in all that He had created, especially man.  In marking this resting as the sign of His first covenant with mankind it was meant to serve as a model for mankind so that we would habitually set aside time to take delight in what is.  In fact, if we apply one of Aquinas’ favorite philosophical dictum, “last in order of execution is first in order of intention” we find that the highest thing that man can do is leisure.  In fact it would seem that all other things are done in order to make this thing possible.

When Our Lord visited the home of Martha and Mary, He was, in essence, reminding Martha (and all of us) that work is not the highest good.  Work is meant as useful activity so that work, in and of itself, does not have meaning but ultimately is directed towards something else.  In other words, work must always be done as a means to some other end.  You don’t work merely for work’s sake.  For example, a furniture maker doesn’t simply saw the wood for the sake of sawing the wood.  He has the end in mind of building a chair.  Because of this, work is good.  It not only contributes to the dignity of the person, but to the common good as well.  It is also necessary.  St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who don’t work, don’t eat.

The Romans and the Greeks knew this truth from Truth much better than we do.  We treat leisure as little more than playing in order to get back to work.  But for the ancients work was for the sake of leisure.  Work was meant to free us up for the higher things.  In fact the Latin word for leisure is otium and the word for work is negotium, which literally means “not at leisure.”

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture , Josef Pieper defines leisure as “considering things in a celebrating spirit.  The leisure of man includes within itself a celebratory gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.”  Leisure is drinking reality as it really is.  It is an activity that is done for its own sake that in some way enriches the person.  An example of leisure would be to “stop and smell the roses.”  We don’t look at a rose so that we might dissect it, but so that we might gaze upon it and take in its beauty for its own sake.  In other words, leisure should be something that elicits wonder on our part.

Max Weber, an early 20th century German politician and sociologist said that “one does not work in order to live, one lives for the sake of one’s work.”  Compare this with what Aristotle said.   He said that we don’t work to live but to be at leisure.  Can you imagine trying to tell this to people today without being labeled as lazy or unproductive?

I think it is important at this point to discuss exactly what leisure is not.  It is not merely “Veging out” or amusement.  We were made for much more than merely amusement.  We were made for eternal joy, which is so much deeper than simple amusement.  I am not saying that either of these is necessarily bad, just that they aren’t leisure.  Leisure is meant to enrich us while these only serve as a distraction or break from work.  Leisure should be recreation which consists in those things by which we are “recreated.” Practically speaking means we somehow have a different view of reality—God, the world, and ourselves—after participating in them.  Leisure activities contribute to happiness it necessarily increases virtue.  This should be our measuring stick as to whether a given activity is true leisure or not.  But again, leisure is an end in itself.  We do not do them because they increase virtue, they increase virtue because they are good for us.  This can often be a source of confusion for us.  For example is exercising something that a healthy person does or is it something that causes health?  The person who does it because of the first reason does so in a spirit of festivity and joy—they enjoy it.  The second person does so minimally and grudgingly.

JPII Hiking

Why is it so necessary, especially in today’s world?  I am convinced what the world needs more than anything else today is the restoration of wonder.  Only in leisure can we look beyond the usefulness of things to their meaning.  This is the very Catholic habit of viewing reality sacramentally.  All visible reality is meant to point to the invisible reality of God, its Creator.  Creation exists so as to reveal God to us His beloved creatures.  Aquinas may have gotten the mechanics of the law of gravity wrong, but he certainly got its meaning right—it existed as a force because God is love and love, being a cause of attraction causes an object to rest in the object it is attracted to.  Even the law of gravity is a sacrament!

As is always the case, but especially when we have things totally upside down, we should look to Christ and how He lived to get our priorities in order.  We seem to have this image of Him as a serious man who never had any fun.  That is why I love the flashback scene in the movie The Passion of the Christ where Jesus has just finished building the table and Mary asks about the chairs.  His playful response is invaluable for us in understanding that God as man certainly knew how to have fun.  This was a man who grew up and lived in a Mediterranean culture where they spent a great deal of time at table with friends, drinking good red wine.  As the Second Vatican Council told us in Gaudium et Spes, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (GS 22).

So what did Christ tell us about Leisure in the Gospels?  Three particular passages come to mind.  During His temptation in the desert, Christ tells the devil that “man does not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4).  I think this is precisely the point.  The man who does try to live by bread alone, which unfortunately is the majority of us, is the man who lacks both culture and leisure.

The second passage that comes to mind is during the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:33) when He tells us to seek the kingdom first and then all these things will be added.  The man who seeks the highest things will have the lesser things thrown in.  As CS Lewis said in his essay First and Second Things, “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”  Only with leisure in its higher place can we begin to understand work in the proper way.

So how have we gotten things so upside down?  What are the causes?  I think there are three main causes, although it is hard to narrow it down to only these three.

In the Gospel of Life, John Paul II said that at the root of the culture of death is “an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency”.  This I think shows one of the main causes.  We don’t have leisure because we are too obsessed with production.  Leisure doesn’t produce anything.  It is useless and that it is why the lack of leisure also coincides with a lack of friendship.

This obsession with usefulness and utility can even be found in our everyday language.  How many times have you asked someone how they are, only to get the response of “busy”?  In fact, this happens so often to me that I am often caught off guard when I don’t get it.  We associate our well-being with how occupied we are.  Someone who understands leisure and its place should respond that they are “wonder-full”.

This manifests itself in workaholism.  This is when work becomes an end in itself and people define themselves according to their work.  Think about it.  When we meet or introduce someone, we immediately want to know what they do for a living.  It is nothing other than vanity though.  We seek approval for what we do rather than for who we are in God.

Sin is obviously the cause of all of this, but there is one of the Capital Sins that is at the heart of the crisis of leisure and it is one you rarely hear about anymore.  That sin is sloth.  Let me be clear on what exactly sloth is.  Aquinas said that sloth is sorrow about spiritual good.  It is not merely sorrow as a feeling, but it is a sorrow which steals our appetite for God.

It is not mere laziness as is often thought.  It is only laziness in that it keeps us from our heavenly tasks.  Sloth is the reason why most people don’t pray and is the reason why our spiritual lives are “choked out by the concerns of the world” (Mk 4:19).  It can actually be anything but laziness in that it takes a lot of work to avoid asking the big questions in life such as who we are and where we are going.

This is why we so often fail to wonder at beauty.  The expression of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” doesn’t say it all.  The problem is not that beauty is subjective (in fact it is objective along with goodness and truth).  The problem is that the “beholder” lacks the maturity to recognize the beauty.

The last cause I want to mention is the most important and the most obvious.  Although the majority of our culture professes to believe in God, they are practical atheists in that they act as if God did not exist.  Is there a commandment that is more closely associated with leisure than the third?  And is there a commandment that is broken more often today?  Why did God issue the Third Commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy?  We turn once again to the Catechism:

If God “rested and was refreshed” on the seventh day, man too ought to “rest” and should let others, especially the poor, “be refreshed.”  The sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money. (CCC 2172)

So it wasn’t because God demands our worship so much as to remind us not to become slaves to anything.  We were made to worship and only in worshipping God are we complete.  Everyone worships something.

It is also to remind us that we were not meant for the servitude of work.  Man is made for the higher things to which leisure points us.  God’s gift of the Sabbath is to remind us of that.  It reminds us that the truth of reality is that we are all useless.  God has absolutely no use for any of us.  We were created because He loved us into creation and it is His love that holds us in creation.  There is nothing we can give him that he doesn’t already have except our love and adoration.  In that way we are all useless and meant only for the highest of things.

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