Cultivating Holy Leisure
We’re all familiar with the adage “Time is money.” This is usually used in business circles to suggest that if you are wasting time, you are wasting the money that you could be making.
But if time is money, then money, likewise, is time: Every dollar that a person earns is a representation of the time that it took to earn it. Of the two, time is more valuable.
Time is the currency of existence. As Arnold Bennet put it, “The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! — your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions, a highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!”
So what do we do with this “singular commodity”? Making and spending money is one possibility; and in practice, it’s the one that is most often suggested by our culture. Even as we acknowledge a longing for more free time, we tend to have an overdeveloped work ethic. Thus we conceive of rest primarily in relation to productivity, as a way of recharging so that the body can return to work.
This means that rest is understood merely as “down time”: A person works for as long as he or she is able, then collapses in front of some sort of passive entertainment until falling asleep. People rise in the morning and repeat this cycle. The weekend is spent engaging in consumption, spending money in order to fulfill one’s basic social and domestic needs — assuming that a person is able to enjoy a weekend at all.
It’s not accidental that a society that construes the value of time primarily in economic terms is also a society that devalues human life.
St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), described ours as a culture obsessed with efficiency: “The criterion of personal dignity — which demands respect, generosity and service — is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: Others are considered not for what they ‘are,’ but for what they ‘have, do and produce.’”
Obviously, many people who overwork don’t have a choice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls us to be “mindful” of those who “cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery” (2186). Yet there are also many who work too much but who are not motivated by necessity or privation.
When the rich choose to work during their leisure time, this creates pressure for the poor to go on working as well. The work of executives and professionals must be supported by those lower down on the social chain if it is going to bear fruit. This may take the form of immediate demands on child-care workers, cafeteria staff, cleaners and others, who are pressured to work longer hours in order to support the work of their social superiors, or it may take the form of institutions and systems that assume non-stop economic activity in all spheres of production. In either case, those who have the least influence are often deprived of the ability to make a living wage while working reasonable hours with adequate opportunities for rest.
As Pope Francis warns, “The worship of the ancient golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. ... Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric” (Evangelii Gaudium).
We often focus on the effect of excessive consumption on the goods of the earth and the material conditions of the poor, but both Scripture and Church teaching have always seen avarice as a danger not only to material resources, but also to the dignity of labor and the value of a person’s time.
The dignity of life is therefore upheld not only by the Fifth Commandment and Sixth Commandment, forbidding murder and safeguarding marriage, but also by the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
If we read the commandment as it is presented in Deuteronomy, the link between Sabbath rest and the protection of the poor and marginalized immediately becomes apparent. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work — you or your son or your daughter or your manservant or your maidservant or your ox or your ass or any of your cattle or the sojourner who is within your gates — that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:13-14).
The Third Commandment defends the poor from continual economic exploitation and promotes an ethic of integral human development. It prevents the person from being reduced to a human resource, a productive body in an economic system.
This is why the Catechism does not present leisure merely as a biological necessity. “Holy leisure” gives people time “to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives” (2184) and provides an opportunity for “reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation, which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life” (2186).
The Sabbath is not understood merely as “time off.” It’s not a break in an unending process of production and consumption: It’s the climax of the week. Whereas the world sees the weekend as a time to get ready to go back to work on Monday, the Church sees the work week as a preparation for Sunday Mass. Here, the “work of human hands” is offered to God and transformed into a vehicle of Divine communion.
Tradition offers us a rich understanding of time that contrasts with the monotony of commercial life. The calendar of the Church is not made up of a constant procession of largely identical weekdays and weekends periodically broken up by commercialized “holidays.”
Instead, the liturgical calendar offers up time as a landscape that constantly changes over the course of the year. There are saints’ days and solemnities, desert periods and festivals and time to rejoice and time to repent. The most important days require long interior preparation: The fasts of Lent and Advent give way to the feasts of Easter and Christmas. The seasons become an icon of the drama of salvation.
Time is thus ordered towards eternity. This isn’t just a pious observance: The dignity of the human person depends in a very real way on the recognition that history is a story that leads somewhere.
“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing space,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI told us in Caritas in Veritate (Integral Human Development in Truth and Charity).
“Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods.”
Melinda Selmys is the author of Slave of Two Masters. She writes from Ontario, Canada.
- July 13-26, 2014