Holy Leisure: The School of Wisdom

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

When Sr. Claudia Scharf, OSB, wakes in the dark of an early morning, she lights a candle to enter a moment of reflection, of leisure. Watching it flicker, her thoughts travel to Jesus, and the light that He radiates in our dark universe. She thinks of her Sisters, how they are Christ in the world. In this predawn quiet, companioned by the soft glow of the candle’s flame, she prepares herself for the day.

Welcome to the leisure that belongs to the monastic heart. Perhaps first articulated by Socrates when he warned, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” leisure has been heralded over the millennia as critical to happiness (Aristotle), and as an opportunity – in today’s parlance – to kick back and relax. But what, really, is leisure? And why is it so important?

“Leisure is not only about time and activity,” Augustana College campus minister Sr. Marilyn Ring, OSB, says. “It is about attitude, toward self, toward others, toward God. It’s about attention. When we take college students on retreats, we have a slogan that says ‘Be here now.’ We seek, during that time of leisure, to be present to ourselves and to one another.”

The results can be dramatic. Sr. Marilyn tells a story of a student who was struggling with homesickness during a recent retreat. Sullen and withdrawn, she sat away from the group, hair covering her eyes, arms crossed in front of her chest. Unlike what might have happened on the busy campus – the young woman might easily have been ignored and forgotten – on retreat, the other students noticed and responded with kindness.

“We had the leisure to be present to her, which allowed us to be aware of her unhappiness,” Sr. Marilyn says. “Gradually, in response to our constant urging, she opened up about her homesickness. The other students invited her to do things with them, which they continued to do when they returned to campus. The last I heard, she is happy and involved.”

Leisure is a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality. Josef Pieper, German philosopher

Deep listening – the kind required for Sr. Marilyn’s college students to understand and respond to their classmate’s pain – cannot be accomplished in rushed circumstances. It requires attention and intention, both of which require an attitude of leisure. An attitude of, I have time to listen to you.

“The experience of holy leisure is one of presence,” Sr. Marilyn says. “If we have an attitude of presence to other people or to what we are doing, that’s holy. For instance, I saw Sisters Anne and Norberta shucking corn the other day. They were so companionable, chatting as they worked, it felt to me like leisure, like holy leisure, and not like a chore.”

Making oneself present to another person – and to God – requires an intentionality of purpose, she notes.

“We can’t just use another’s presence to talk about ourselves,” Sr. Marilyn says. “That’s disrespectful. The same thing is true of prayer. We make ourselves present to God to listen to God as well as to talk.”

As Michael Casey, OCSO, writes, Benedictine life is predicated on leisure:

“In the traditional ordering of the monastic day ‘intervals’ were provided in which nothing much happened. Provision was made for the possibility of moving from one place or activity to another, for leaving aside a particular occupation and temporarily disengaging from its concerns.”

As when the bells ring, calling all to the chapel ten minutes before prayers begin.

“When I hear the bells for prayers, I drop everything and go to the chapel,” Sr. Helen Carey, OSB, says. “I settle in for those quiet moments and watch the morning fog, the deer leap through the wild flowers. I enter an attitude of receptivity.”

During prayers, intervals of silence provide more time for leisure, as does the slow and measured reading of the Psalms. “Praying the Psalms slowly with the community is a very prayerful experience,” Sr. Helen says.

Admittedly, it might be a bit easier to achieve an attitude of leisure in a monastery than in a busy household or workplace. But efforts to incorporate times of leisure have long-lasting and far-reaching benefits. Sr. Catherine Cleary, OSB, says they help us re-create ourselves.

“Balance is the key,” she says. “Knowing when to quit work and take a walk or listen to music.”

But what, really, is leisure?

“Leisure is not work versus not-work,” Sr. Catherine says. “It is intervals of quiet and pleasurable activity that orient the mind to be fully present all the time. You don’t achieve it by watching Survivor or the Sopranos on TV. That kind of violence is the opposite and the enemy of leisure.”

Michael Casey says leisure “means living gently; it is the opposite of being driven or obsessed. … (It) invites us to cultivate the virtue of inefficiency. We are far more likely to notice the scenery if we dawdle along the way than if we rocket along at mind-numbing speed.”

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. Jesus (Mark 6:31)

In other words, we must learn to value inefficiency, or, as Max Picard notes, in The World of Silence, holy uselessness.

“It’s important that we not think of leisure time as wasting time,” Sr. Marilyn says. “Brother David Standl-Rast asks, ‘Why do we always say we’re going to take a walk? What about giving ourselves to a walk?’ If we give ourselves to what we are doing, it is energizing and productive.”

It re-creates us, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

“It may mean doing something like sitting and watching the birds or knitting a blanket,” Sr. Marilyn says. “But really, it’s just being. Alone or with others.”

Sr. Catherine Maloney, OSB, cautions that leisure requires a certain discipline. “We have to ask ourselves, What are we going to give up in order to give ourselves – and others – leisure time? That’s what it takes. You have to be willing to give up something. You have to be willing to pull yourself away from your job, your busyness, in order to be, just be.”

The result?

“Peace, joy, calm,” Sr. Catherine says. “A sense of God’s presence.”

In the final analysis, leisure is a school of wisdom. Michael Casey, OCSO

Creating an attitude of leisure requires that we engage in leisurely being. Quietly watching the sunrise, listening to birdsong, or sitting on a bench along a creek all promote interior quiet, the space where attentiveness and presence to the world grows. The space where it can occur to you that we are all Christ in the world. The space where you can really hear another person’s song.

Giving Yourself to Leisure:

*Be aware of your priorities in life and make time for them

*Always make time for family

*Keep the TV off at dinner

*Stay home after dinner

*Get up earlier to have quiet time

*Play! Choose friends (and pets) who bring out your inner child!