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 Writer's Desk  ... introducing NCR's mission of faith and justice based journalism

February 7, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 40



Antonia Ryan Just in time for Lent: Leisure

By Antonia Ryan, OSB

Lent is almost here, and in preparation for that reflective time I have been taking stock of my failings. One of my biggest failings is not knowing how to say "no." Consequently, I have way too much to do.

Recently I was reciting to another sister in my community the long litany of my projects-in-progress. Two book reviews. Three essays. A presentation. A class. "And," I said, "I'm going to write a column about leisure."

"That's ironic," she said.

She was right. In fact, there was very little that was leisurely about writing this "Writer's Desk." Going to bed too late, getting up too early, keeping myself going by listening to the "ABBA Gold" CD, about which there is nothing meditative at all. Sorry, Fernando. Not even you.

I would not be in this position if I knew how to structure my time wisely. When I do have free time, too often I watch shows I don't care about or wander around randomly picking up books and magazines to browse.

One book I picked up randomly from the display shelf in our monastery library is called Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and it turned out to be a very happy find, because it helps me to think about what my time is really for.

This edition of Leisure is a 1998 reprint of two essays (the title essay and "The Philosophical Act") by Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper that were originally published together in Germany in 1948. They came out in English in 1952, and the end of the book contains reviews of that first English edition from the New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, The Spectator (London), Commonweal and more. Though some questioned whether readers who did not share Pieper's religious views would be helped by his Christian approach to philosophy, all hailed the book as a valuable criticism of Western culture's disproportionate glorification of work.

Pieper was writing to his fellow Germans a few years after the Second World War as they took up the task of rebuilding their country. Yes, we have work to do, he said, but "before any detailed plan along these lines can succeed, our new beginning, our re-foundation, calls out immediately for a defense of leisure."

British philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote the 1998 introduction for Leisure, says that today's workers need to hear that defense just as much 50 years later: "Leisure has had a bad press," he wrote. "For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many. Nobody in a democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his time, will say that he works hard for a living -- a curious expression, when the real thing to work for is dying."

"We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity," he goes on. "Of course, work may be creative. But only when informed by leisure. Leisure is not the cessation of work, but work of another kind, work restored to its human meaning, as a celebration and festival."

Pieper's examination of "work" and "leisure" concerns not only actual physical labor, which he knows is part of the necessary rhythm of life. He questions the idea of what we sometimes call "intellectual work," countering Kant's idea that "human knowing consists entirely in the act of investigating, articulating, joining, comparing, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, proving -- all of which are so many types and methods of active mental effort. According to Kant, knowing is activity, and nothing but activity."

There is another way to know, says Pieper, and that way is contemplation. Real leisure is worship, he says; the essential command of leisure is this: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 45) -- or, as it is phrased here, "Be at leisure and know that I am God."

This reminds me once again that I have not been faithful enough at doing my daily lectio. Benedict instructed his monks to spend several hours a day in sacred reading, and we modern followers of Benedict try to keep up this tradition as best we can. The words we read are always supposed to lead us beyond intellectual comprehension to wordless prayer and contemplation, to "knowing that God is God."

Unfortunately, my lectio always seems to be squeezed in around all the other things I have to do, and it's one of the first things to slip away when I am terribly busy. The other day in Hosea (my present lectio text), God said to faithless Israel: "They shall sow the wind and reap the whirlwind."

Oh, how right God is. This Lent, I'm going to try to calm the whirlwind.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is aryan@ncronline.org.
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