‘Come to Me, and I Will Give You Rest’
The ultimate leisure is to receive from Jesus his own life and goodness
Throughout Advent, I have seen several advertisements for performances of Handel’s Messiah. I remember singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” when I was in the choir in high school, and my New Jersey public school still performs that song. It is something that our culture continues to embrace, to my delight, since the lyrics are anything but secular and politically correct; it is a proud declaration, set to powerful music, that Jesus Christ is the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever.”
In his course How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, Robert Greenberg relates an anecdote from the life of Handel. After the London debut of Messiah, Handel visited the home of a friend who congratulated him on the “noble entertainment” he had recently given to the city. Handel was not pleased, and he said that he did not seek merely to entertain the people, but to make them better.
Mere entertainment has become something of an all-encompassing religion today (which I have written about here), but what if we thought about using our free time not merely for entertainment, but to be made better? After all, it is what we do with our free time that will form what we are and reveal what we are.
Perhaps a shift in wording will help. Instead of thinking about entertainment, consider leisure. We all agree that we need leisure. Leisure is necessary for a full experience of what it means to be a human, but what we do with our leisure makes all the difference. I have heard it said, Tell me what you read, and I will tell you what you are.” This could be rephrased: “Tell me what your leisure is, and I will tell you what you are.”
Josef Pieper, in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture, tells us, “Leisure is a receptive attitude of the mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” We are made for truth, beauty and goodness, not for nothingness. Leisure should be a time of cultivation of the self, not mere relaxation. Leisure is attention directed towards the unity and the being of things, not mere inattention.
Pieper continues: “Leisure draws its vitality from affirmation. It is not the same as non-activity, nor is it identical to tranquility; it is not even the same as inward tranquility. Rather, it is like the tranquil silence of lovers, which draws its strength from concord.”
Leisure should be for the heart and the mind what sleep, food, and exercise are for the body — not a deadening but a strengthening. Handel wanted the people who came to his oratorio to leave better. An encounter with beauty will do that, and encounters with other people, especially our family, close friends and holy people will do that, too, but the ultimate encounters with beauty and truth that leave us changed for the better are prayer, the sacraments and the Mass. To receive from the King of Kings his own life and goodness is the ultimate leisure.
These are not merely utilitarian considerations. Leisure can make us better, but leisure constitutes the things we do for their own sake, the very things we are made for. By doing those things, we form ourselves more and more into what we ought to be.
It has been said that time is money. Whether or not that is true in a financial sense, I do not know. But I know that time is the currency that buys for us what we truly value. The investment of our time will bear the real fruit in our lives and in eternity.
And so, as Advent passes into Christmas, let us use our free time for so much more than mere entertainment. All of our free time can be used as leisure in its truest sense, the cultivation of a heart that is prepared to receive the Lord of Lords, a heart in which Christ reigns and can reign forever and ever — in a single word, worship.