Thomas à Kempis wrote in his reflections, “Why do you look for rest, when you were born for labor?” His question reflects a profound truth about human nature and about what gives human beings peace. Namely, work brings satisfaction and consolation in human life, not “entertainment” and “taking it easy.” After all, Adam was told to tend the garden. God created the world and made man in the image of God, who therefore co-creates with God in the world. Laboring is part of human nature.
The same is true in the spiritual life. Peace of soul is not only obtained but maintained through great efforts. For this reason St. Theophan the Recluse advised, “Above all, never relax.” Christ invites those who are laboring to enjoy His blessings: “Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). He does not say, “Come to Me, all you that are relaxing and taking it easy.”
God Himself is a tireless worker—but He is not a workaholic. Even God who never sleeps “rested” on the seventh day after creating the world (Gen 2:3). Not only work but also an appropriate form of rest is part of God’s plan for us. For this reason God not only rested but blessed the seventh day (Gen 2:3). But what sort of “rest” is this?
The ancient world had a concept of rest known as “leisure.” For example, Plato taught that no one could be a true philosopher without leisure. In other words, philosophy was a form of undisturbed and unhurried thinking, a reflection based on spiritual experience as much as on any intellectual rigor. Aristotle felt that the way a society used its leisure time was the determining characteristic of its level of civilization. In either case, leisure was not “idleness”—it implied activity. Yet the activity of leisure was not utilitarian, but rather it had a spiritual or cultural character, and so was accompanied by a certain unhurriedness, a lack of distraction, and even silence.
It was God Himself who indicated to Moses the overarching character of leisure: He commanded the Israelites to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Ex 20:8). “Holy” means sacrificed, something we have given to God and therefore set apart from our own goods or possessions. The rest instituted by God has a purpose: it is to nourish that aspect of our nature which is open to the transcendent. God is the horizon, if not the focus, of all leisure.
Leisure is not just about thinking and reflecting. It’s about having the patience to enter deeply into whatever interests us, whether it be Scripture, study, literature, art, prayer, conversation, or just looking at a sunset, without hurry and without seeking “results.” Leisure is a spiritual activity and involves spiritual freedom. It is a reflection of life in paradise, a taste of the eternal now, without past and without future. It nourishes the spiritual dimension of man’s life on earth. The Holy Fathers called its highest form “contemplation.”
Today, leisure has become a challenge to modern man. For starters, most feel that they have no time for it. The fact of the matter is that we have plenty of time on our hands. However, we make a crucial and fatal mistake with our free time: we have equated “leisure” with “entertainment.” In other words, we use up our free time not in leisure, but in movies, games, media and other activities that confuse our already overloaded souls with yet more images and emotions—very often violent, etc. This “entertainment” may take us away temporarily from our own lives but can also leave us more stressed and exhausted than when we sat down to watch. This fact reveals a crucial distinction: “entertainment” often adds to the clutter and toxin in the soul, whereas leisure removes it.
Entertainment may have its place but it is not leisure. For example, even if what is on television is something “neutral,” such as sports (if they can be considered as such), it still has no meaning for one’s own life whatsoever. This reveals a second crucial distinction: leisure helps us live and enrichour own lives, media “entertainment” does not. If we spent less leisure time in entertainment we would find that we have a sudden abundance of time for God and for our families and for all those things we have always wanted to do. This is not unrealistic. Let us not forget that it was not too long ago that people spent their free time much differently: they conversed, they read, they reflected. They shared their lives with each other. Today the ever-present television is often a temptation even at family and holiday gatherings, where it can substitute for conversation. What a lost opportunity and tragic waste of time!
Leisure’s call to slow down and live out one’s own life is a great challenge in today’s world. In leisure’s silence, with no distractions or chattering, we are confronted with the still, small voice of our conscience. Our anxieties, hurts, fears and even demons may come out. The diversion and distraction of entertainment is an easier path, as it provides an escape from all this, but it never provides any solutions. Are we then really living our own life? How will we ever give ourselves the opportunity to confront the essential issues of our life, instead of living vicariously the life of another on the screen? No one ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office in my life,” or yet, “I wish I had watched more DVDs.”
Let us not forget that “resting” in a holy way is not only part of human nature and thus necessary for our health and happiness, but a commandment of God. Today it is our challenge to restore leisure in our lives as God intended it. To do so involves small steps: turn off the television; stare at a good book; let the soul rest. Above all, consecrate the Lord’s Day to the things of the Lord. When we then turn to more meaningful things, our lives will be greatly enriched. We need to set aside time to commune with the things of God, which is what God intended for us when He established the Sabbath Day. Only when we thus turn our souls to Him can we receive His promise, “I will give you rest.“