The Importance of Leisure

Leisure is an important thing.  This statement might seem obvious to some — and slightly offensive to others.  In fact, our American work ethic might make it difficult to believe that leisure is an important part of our lives.  You might even equate leisure with laziness, sloth, or vice.

Spiritual direction over the years has made one thing abundantly clear: filling your day with lots and lots of work is not necessarily a virtuous pursuit.  Perhaps even more shocking:  moments of leisure help to shape you into the person that you will become.  It is really that important.

A recent visit to Italy reminded me of this truth.  We were sitting in St. Peter’s Square, as we waited for the Canonization of Mother Teresa to begin.  We had loads of time to talk, pray, and think about our time in Rome.

And we all began to bake in the Italian sun — it wasn’t pretty 🙁 but it gave us lots of time to think.

At some point, my thoughts turned to the Colosseum we had visited the day before. It’s an impressive structure in itself, but within it’s ruined walls lies an important truth for us all.

The Colosseum was built for one purpose:  to increase the power of the Emporer by providing entertainment for his citizens.

As the Empire began to diminish in strength and prosperity, the Emporer strove to meet the people’s desire to be entertained.  The Emperor hoped the Colosseum would serve to distract the people from the problems of the times.

The payoff for such dramatic, sweeping, and extravagant entertainment was the loyalty of the people — so it was worth his effort.

It just so happened that the most popular form of entertainment in the Colosseum relied upon the blood of men and women being shed in new and dramatic ways.  Many Christians died there for one seemingly insignificant purpose: the entertainment of others.

Granted, they died for their faith — but there were many other more expedient ways to kill a Christain.  The Emporer needed to satisfy his citizens’ insatiable thirst for blood — and the Christians served to fill this need.

Perhaps even more disturbing was that they were part of a “light-hearted” half-time show.  People laughed and cheered as men, women, and children met their grisly deaths.

The crowds of the colosseum began to change, perhaps even without their notice.  As their thirst for blood overtook their higher ideals, the progress of a civilization began to crumble.

If there is one thing we can learn from this time — it’s that how we spend our free time has the ability to change us — for better or worse.

The death of countless Christian men and women served the simple purpose of entertainment.

It’s easy to separate ourselves from such barbarism and criticize the Romans for their atrocities, but I prefer to see it as a reminder to take stock of our own lives and ask the important question, “What am I doing with my ‘free’ time?”

And if you’re too busy for leisure, then you’re just too busy. You need to carve out time in your day to be still or eventually you will lose your faith, you hope, and your charity.  We’re talking crash and burn. 🙁

But even if you’re willing to accept the value of leisure, surely there must be some pursuits that are more noble than others.   There are many popular pursuits that could be considered leisure.  But are they good?

Take for example, sports.  The Colosseum serves as inspiration for countless stadiums across our country. Billions of dollars are spent each year building and filling our own “colosseums”  — frankly, it boggles the mind.

And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sports, but some people have raised sports up to be their god.  If you’re skipping Mass for a child’s sporting event — or possibly worse, to watch the big game (that’s why we have DVR’s and Vigil Masses, people) then you have made a god of sports.

Or what about spending time on social media?  In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with engaging in social media — but the truth is, it can distract us from our family and friends and hinder us from making real connections with God and other people.

I could go on and on.  I could label Netflix or Google or Youtube or iPhone as the enemy — but the truth is, they are not the problem.  The problem hits a little closer to home — for it is inside of all of us.  It’s that part of us that wants to get lost in a world of mindless entertainment, to the detriment of more noble pursuits.

Entertainment and Leisure have their place — as long as they don’t take the place of more important pursuits.

Despite the fact that the pursuit of leisure may lead a person down a very bad path — the desire for leisure is not a bad thing in itself.  In fact, this desire is given to us by God.  We need leisure.  We need to spend time not being “productive” and just enjoying communion with God and family and other people.

Ironically, the most truly “productive”moments in our lives have probably been when we slowed down and did “nothing”.  What could be more important than the moments spent in leisure?  For in that time, we pray and worship God, we spend time with family and the people we love, and we are renewed in our love and enthusiasm for the work that God has given to us.

God made the Sabbath for us. He knew that we needed a day of rest — a time to be renewed and re-created (that’s where we get the word “recreation”).  And He didn’t stop there.  He placed within us the need to rest

He wants us to get this point:  We need to slow down to be reminded what really matters in life.  We need that time to just be still and know He is God.  We need to stop filling every moment of every day with “work”.

And sure, we have important work to do, but leisure actually helps us to do that work.  It will renew our strength to make it to the finish line — having finished well the race in pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

To take time for leisure is to make an act of complete trust in God.  Trust that He’s got this, people, and He’s not going to let you down.  Trust that you have a part to play, but you’re not doing it alone.  Let’s stop trying to make gods of ourselves and leave running the universe to the one true God.  He’ll do a much better job at it.

And if you’re not convinced of the importance of leisure,  just remember that every thriving religious order includes free time and leisure in their day.  Let’s take their lead and make sure we find time for at least some leisure every day.

And please don’t be a “sour-faced saint”, when it comes to leisure — for they aren’t really saints at all.  They are just people who are stingy with themselves and with others.

They’re not converting anybody with their doom and gloom!  At it’s heart, leisure is meant to restore our joy — and that joy will do more to convert the hearts around you than any philosophical or theological debate could do on its own.

Sour-faced Saints need not apply.  🙁

And wine and food and laughter can all be a part of those leisurely moments as well — in fact, they should be a part of at lest some of them.  Let’s not forget Jesus very first miracle was turning simple water into the choicest wine — so it has it’s place.

And it doesn’t have to be hugely important for it to be good for you.  As I’ve said before, the Italians seem to have this leisure thing down.  The picture below brilliantly illustrates this, in my humble opinion.  It’s a picture of the Battle of Oranges in Italy.  People gather from far off places to join the peoples of Ivrea for a huge battle with oranges every year.

This is absolutely ridiculous, but brilliant at the same time.  It’s just an excuse for the Italians to get together, have fun, and maybe hit their crabby neighbor in the head with an orange.  I love everything about this!  We need more feasts like this in America!

Battle of Oranges in Ivrea, Italy

Fortunately, being Catholic means we have grown up with plenty of Feasts to celebrate.  Yes, Catholics know how to fast, but you will notice that every fast is a preparation for a feast.  Fasting is meant to prepare us to really appreciate the feast — a nice reminder as we make our way through this Season of Lent.

So here’s an assignment:  start to make a list of the truly life-giving leisurely activities that you enjoy doing and help you to feel renewed.  Find things that you enjoy on your own, with your family, and with friends.  And try to choose these things the next time you have free time.

For those of us who aren’t in a religious order, our free time should include prayer.  I promise you that if you give your first moments of free time every day to God in prayer, you will have enough time to get done what needs to get done in your day.

Notice I didn’t say you’ll get everything done on your check list — but what needs to get done will get done. And taking this time for prayer will help you to prioritize what’s really important and let go of the rest.

If you don’t take the time to be intentional about your free time, you might end up choosing the things that  can’t really satisfy our deepest longings.  Some of the more popular choices for leisure today are known to lead to addiction, restlessness, and sadness — the very opposite of what good leisure provides for a soul.

Let’s not forget that the real “work” is in loving God and people. Love grows when we allow ourselves the time to breathe in the Beauty and Goodness of God — when we allow ourselves the time to be renewed through leisure.

So let’s celebrate the good, the true, and the beautiful in life — and let’s not forget to bring Jesus into those moments.  Just as any parent loves to see their kids laughing and playing and enjoying each other’s company — I can guarantee that He loves to see us enjoying ourselves too.

So let’s hear it for leisure — hip, hip, hooray!

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