I have not kept count of the number of books that I have read or re-read during the pandemic, but they have been many. I cannot recall why I recently chose from my bookcase a small volume, “Leisure The Basis of Culture” by philosopher Josef Pieper (Translated by Alexander Dru with an Introduction by T.S. Eliot. New York: Pantheon Books, 1952, pp. 127).
Reflecting on the insights that Pieper offers into the meaning of leisure, the meaning of worship and the meaning of the human person, I have to suspect that choosing to re-read the book was providential. Pieper’s insights seemed to be just what I needed at this point in my life.
Pieper writes the following about the meaning of leisure:
“Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul …
“Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness’; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation” (pp.40-41).
Re-reading Pieper’s words, I could imagine that he wrote them with me in mind. Without thinking of the word leisure to describe my efforts, I have been trying to achieve what Pieper describes as leisure throughout my entire adult life. I am very aware of the many times I have failed to achieve it, of the many times that I have surrendered to an unhealthy anxiety instead of trusting in the God Who is present in the whole of creation, including God’s special presence within me that Catholics call sanctifying grace.
I think every effort that we make to grow and develop as human beings is an attempt at achieving a kind of wholeness. Some describe this as “trying to get our act together.” We want to achieve some kind of integrity in our lives, an integrity which puts all our activities and interests in their proper place. For many of us this may take a lifetime.
Pieper writes the following:
“Because wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative absorption in the things that really are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to superhuman, life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does a ‘gate to freedom’ open” (p.44).
What freedom does leisure make available to us? The freedom to know ourselves more deeply, the freedom to know other persons more deeply, the freedom to know the rest of the created order more deeply, the freedom to know God more deeply. But leisure does not just effect us on the level of knowing.
Leisure helps to love more deeply. It helps us to love ourselves more deeply, to love other persons more deeply, to love the created order more deeply, to love God more deeply.
Pieper writes the following:
“Now the highest form of affirmation is the festival…To hold a celebration means to affirm the basic meaningfulness of the universe and a sense of oneness with it, of inclusion within it. In celebrating, in holding festivals upon occasion, man experiences the world in an aspect other than the everyday one.
“The festival is the origin of leisure, and the inward and ever-present meaning of leisure”(p. 43).
Pieper’s statements about festival cause me to think immediately of the celebration of the Eucharist. Everything that Pieper writes about leisure can be related to the Eucharist. The most profound meaning of the Eucharist reveals the most profound meaning of God, of God’s love of us and our love of God. The Eucharist is not primarily a book or a series of texts. It is an action, an action that not only reveals who we are, but an action that can help us become our best selves, an action that can deepen the love relationship between God and us and between us and other persons.
It seems to me that nothing more powerfully or more clearly reveals what Pieper means by leisure than the Eucharist.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.