Many of us have grown up in a culture where our careers define our lives. Often, men and women wear 70- to 80-hour workweeks as a badge of honor, allowing work to usurp church and family time. In my time working in Christian ministries, I had several bosses and co-workers who believed God had called them to such a lifestyle. On the surface, the lack of wisdom and restraint in that way of life should be obvious. But this is a problem that runs rampant in the Church. As I’ve mulled it over, I’ve questioned how the God of the Bible could be used as moral justification for what equates to idolatry. As our nation faces forced quarantines because of the COVID-19 outbreak—with families spending more time together than they are likely ever to have!—Christians have a great opportunity to consider how leisure should look in the Christian life.
Josef Pieper wrote about this issue in Leisure: The Basis of Culture. A German Catholic philosopher, Pieper lived from 1904–1997, and many of his philosophical views are based on the work of Thomas Aquinas. Pieper’s book is a deep read, requiring meditation to get the most out of it, but it’s worth the challenge. In Leisure, Pieper concerns himself with the juxtaposition of breaks from work with leisure for the sake of leisure. The distinction may on its face seem trivial, but Pieper’s point is clear: we must not overvalue the sphere of work.
True Leisure in Three Parts
Pieper outlines the three hallmarks of true leisure: leisure as silence, leisure as celebration, and leisure as non-utilitarian.
By silence, Pieper does not mean noiselessness. He explains, “it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen. . . . it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed” (46). True leisure requires us to let things go and to learn contemplation—the art of thinking deeply. For the Christian, this includes reflecting and meditating on the things of God (Philippians 4:8).
“The festival,” writes Pieper, “is the origin of leisure, and the inward and ever-present meaning of leisure” (49). The art of leisure extends beyond mere laziness or boredom (indeed, those ideas run counter to true leisure). When Christians engage in leisure, they take part in celebration. For instance, when we attend a party, we’re taking part in something outside of everyday life. Pieper explains that this is what leisure is for us—it is experiencing something beyond everyday life. It’s a festival, a celebration.
Finally, our utilitarian society would have us believe that time not spent working is time to refresh for work. But true leisure is not a utilitarian tool. “The point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical” (50). Leisure, Pieper explains, is to be enjoyed for the sake of it. No one who looks to leisure as a way “to restore his working powers” will benefit from it (50).
“Go back to the first and original source”
Pieper pulls no punches concerning the overvalue of work: “The world of ‘work’ and of the ‘worker’ is a poor, impoverished world” (68). Pieper does not mean that work has no value. He is not saying you should quit your job, grow a beard, and spend your life finding yourself. Work is valuable; indeed, God created humans with the drive for and capacity to work (Genesis 2:26–30). But when we reside exclusively within the sphere of work, when it rules our days and our nights, when it dictates that even our moments of rest belong to it, then we have lost the power to be leisurely. And ultimately, Pieper writes, “there is only one thing to be done: go back to the first and original source” (71).
The original source is Jesus Christ, who came to Earth as the God-man, who died for the sins of the world, who rose again three days later.
“The Christian cultus [worship], unlike any other, is at once a sacrifice and a sacrament. In so far as the Christian cultus is a sacrifice held in the midst of the creation which is affirmed by this sacrifice of the God-man—every day is a feast day.”Pieper, p. 73 (emphasis his)
Where Are You, Fellow Believer?
Some of us are blessed in the COVID-19 pandemic with jobs considered “essential,” while others get to—that’s right, get to—stay home and spend time with their families. This is not to minimize the stresses of layoffs and lost income. But let’s all stop to consider how we think about our work. Where are you, Fellow Believer? Have you left behind the Original Source for the shoddy replacement of the workaday world? Do you live primarily with the joy of Christ or with the weariness of daily toil? Is every day a feast day? Whether you are home because you have to be or home between shifts, take time to enjoy leisure as it was meant to be enjoyed. For the Christian, every day is a feast day as we delight in Christ, the True Source of our joy and peace.
The Basis of Culture
By Josef Pieper
143 pp. Ignatius Press, 2009.
Original ed.: Pantheon Books, 1952.