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Time to Reflect

This column was published in the May 2022 issue of Southern Cross.

It might surprise you to know that the writing of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was not completed until the reign of David. This means that the Torah was not put in final form until 900 BC. Why is this, you might ask? Because David’s reign began a time of peace and leisure in Israel. David had defeated his enemies, and Israel, at peace, could reflect on and write down its history and covenant loyalties.

Of course, Israel had its oral and liturgical traditions long before they were written down, but it was not until Israel’s scholars and religious leaders had the time and space afforded by leisure that these oral traditions became written documents.

There is a reason that Josef Pieper titled his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture. As the former Prime Minister Disraeli, wrote, “Increased means and increased leisure are the civilizers of man.” As leisure is important in the culture and life of society, so too is leisure critical in the life of the individual. A look at Roget’s Thesaurus gives a hint of why leisure is important. Leisure’s synonyms are “repose, ease, free moments, and opportunity.” Its antonyms are toil and travail. To be leisurely is to be calm and composed and unhurried.

Through the centuries, the monasteries of Europe were the preservers of learning and culture. This was the case because monasteries were places of leisure. Monks had the time and opportunity to be men of science and learning and to pass this accumulation of art and knowledge on to the secular world.

God himself seems to have enjoyed a period of leisure after the work of creation. Quoting from Pope St. John Paul II's Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini: “The divine rest on the seventh day does not allude to an inactive God… It speaks, as it were, of God lingering before His ‘very good work’… in order to cast upon it a gaze full of joyous delight. This is a contemplative gaze…(and) enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved.” For “contemplative gaze” you can read “leisure,” which gives added meaning to the Sabbath as a day of rest and creative reflection. God takes time to enjoy his creation!

This reflection by John Paul II corroborates the suggestion by Pieper, that leisure is not just time spent outside of work. It is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend, or a vacation. For Pieper, true leisure is an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul. It is the time we protect to be with ourselves and our loved ones. Instead of simply ‘vegging out,’ and taking time away from our place of employment, leisure consists of giving ourselves the space in our lives to develop love, wonder and other essential contemplative virtues, as suggested in The Good Life Method by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko.

Leisure affords a person the opportunity to look both within and outside of oneself, and to appreciate and enjoy the blessings we have received. Leisure is having and taking the time and space to enjoy the gifts hiding in plain sight. One’s family, health and nature are all gifts best explored and appreciated with the opportunity afforded by leisure.

Leisure is having the time and space to develop relationships with family, friends, nature, and the God who gifted us with all of these. A Baptist church nearby periodically posts on its marquee: “This Saturday is the oil change day for single mothers.” I have found that to be a fascinating invitation. I imagine it is a time for these mothers to step back from their 24/7 job and look into their souls. To re-appreciate and value themselves not only for what they do, but for who they are: God’s servants, created in God’s image. “Oil change” is another way of saying “leisure.”

As the philosopher Socrates opined long ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Of course, Socrates asked too many questions, and it cost him his life. I think the unexamined life is a blur. It means never taking the time to reflect on from whence I came, why I am here, and what is my destiny? Leisure is the atmosphere in which these questions can be pursued. Otherwise, the only question that matters is: what side should I have with my steak: a baked potato, or fries?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invited us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky. Jesus is inviting us not only to “smell the roses,” but to an exercise in contemplative prayer. Take the time and leisure, Jesus invites, to consider the wonders of God’s creation. Consider how much more he, who clothed the “lilies of the field” with beauty, will care for you of little faith.

There is another Gospel story that recommends the benefits of leisure. That story is told by Luke (10:38-42). Luke sets the story in Bethany at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, friends of Jesus. While Martha prepares a meal for the guests, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his wisdom. Martha and Mary are often contrasted in this story as “Apostolic Action” versus “Contemplation.” Mary represents the contemplative party, and of course, we all need to develop a dimension of both contemplative and apostolic action. But do not underestimate the side of leisure and contemplation.

Msgr. Fred J. Nijem is retired and pastor emeritus of Sacred Heart, Warner Robins.

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