A person who lives only at the active level is like someone who only breathes out, or like a heart that only releases blood. That would be a strange kind of life, if indeed it were even possible.

With increasing automation and earlier retirement, many are threatened with the loss of purpose in life. Indeed, we may all wonder what we would do if all the things we keep busy with were suddenly to be taken away. Would that not constitute a serious identity crisis for all of us? We must face this problem, because our spiritual journey reminds us that we are primarily called to be and not to do anything.

What we do is of course important to all of us. But there are times when we can’t do anything, when inactivity is forced upon us: when we’re caught in a traffic jam; or obliged to wait in a doctor’s office, at an airport, or in a railroad station; or when we are old and sick and simply waiting for death. When such inactivity is forced upon us, we are obliged to be receptive. That is why we become frustrated, because we have never learned receptivity. Yet our lives ought to be composed of receptivity and activity. This is the root of the whole question of work and leisure.

There is a give and take at all levels of life. We start life by breathing in and we end it by breathing out. In between we follow the same rhythm of breathing in and breathing out. The heart follows a similar pattern, taking in blood and releasing it. A person who lives only at the active level is like someone who only breathes out, or like a heart that only releases blood. That would be a strange kind of life, if indeed it were even possible.

Nevertheless, we should not suppose that activity-passivity, productivity-receptivity, give-take, represent a dichotomy of work and leisure. Passivity is not leisure; neither is receptivity nor a mere taking in. Leisure is not the opposite of activity, productivity, or work. Rather, leisure is the right balance between give and take, between work and rest, and it can therefore be achieved in work as well as in rest. Unleisurely inactivity and of course unleisurely work are perhaps more familiar, but there is such a thing as leisurely work and leisurely recreation.

Still, the question persists: What is leisure? As the balance between work and rest, it is the opposite of idleness because it is the basis from which good work starts and grows. We might say that leisure is the beginning of all virtues in the sense that it is an inner attitude of openness and trust. Its characteristics are “taking it easy” rather than “keeping busy,” of “allowing things to happen,” not “keeping things under control.” Trust is necessary, because we can only let things happen if we believe that things will work out all right, that events and circumstances and things and situations come from a source that wants our good. We can open our hands and receive these things without the nagging fear that they are traps. The difference between this inner openness and a kind of nervous choosiness is the difference between an open hand and a clenched fist.

Thus, leisure is the basis for a full awareness, for as long as we pick and choose we limit our horizons.

And, to the degree to which our awareness is increased, our aliveness is increased. That is what leisure is – the amount of our aliveness.

The Psalmist sang, “Vacate et videte”: “Have leisure, be leisurely and see that I am God.” Leisure is the condition of seeing and having communion with God. All that God asked of Abraham was: “Walk before me and be perfect”; not do this or that, but simply stand before me, be yourself. And that is an important aspect of leisure, and why it is so difficult for us to grasp in this society. It is the uncompetitive attitude. It is the trust that we are accepted as we are. Surely God loves us as we are. We don’t have to merit that love. Most of the time we emphasize doing, living up to standards. Christ told us, “God’s realm has come,” or, in the words of the Psalm: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” That is all the effort required of us – to open wide our mouth and God will fill it. All that St. Paul said about entering the rest of God can be taken in the sense of “relax and take it all in,” that is, an attitude of contemplation.

By contemplation I mean simply this: On a winter morning you pull back the curtain and you see that it is snowing. You see snowflakes swirling and dancing. You look up and they are white against the dark sky; you follow them with your eyes and at one point they disappear. Then you look again and they reappear, white against the sky, and you lose yourself in this image. That is just what I mean by contemplation – no special effort. There is enjoyment, and an element of celebration, and both spring from an attitude of leisure.

This shows why leisure is so important. It is an end in itself, unlike work which is an activity for a purpose. But human beings need much more than purpose; we need meaning. Needless to say there is such a thing as purpose without meaning. Indeed, it is disturbing to think of how many purposeful activities we are involved in that have very little meaning. It is precisely the attitude of leisure that gives meaning to work. As long as we are not leisurely we lack the inner distance, so to speak, to see the meaning of the work.

Leisure, then, is an end in itself. It also the end of work, but not in the sense that it is the thing that comes after work. That end, unless we are already leisurely, never comes. It is the end of work in the sense that it must always be contemporaneous with work that can be enjoyed, at least to the extent to which it is meaningful. And if we have the attitude of leisure, the right balance of give and take, of openness, of inner awareness, then we will find some meaning in almost any work we have to do. The why of work is answered with leisure, but the why of leisure is simply answered by leisure itself.

If we ask which of our various activities is an end in itself we find that the answer is celebration. And that is what leisure is: an inner attitude of celebration. To the question, “What do we need in order to live leisurely?” most people probably would say, “I need more time.” There is truth in that, but I would say we need first an inner attitude of celebration; that’s all. If we haven’t got that we need a change of mind.

Of course we need time, which invariably seems to be precisely what we haven’t got. But leisure is taking time. If we think of time we would like to have for leisure as something we will get after work, we’ll never get it. If, on the other hand, we think of the time we need for leisure, for an inner expansion, as something we can get in the busiest moments, if only we take our time, then we will take the time however busy we are. When we say we are taking our time with a piece of work we mean, in this context, that we are working with an inner attitude of celebration.

In order to take time, we have to do two things, one negative the other positive. The negative one is hard for generous people but it is absolutely necessary; that is, we must learn to say no, and say it without a bad conscience. Often it is simply our duty to avoid getting so involved that we get crushed. Thus, we must be able say no. The other, positive thing we must learn to do is to find the feasts that God has prepared for us, to find them in the unlikeliest places and at times when we are nervous or frustrated at what appears to be an endless wait, a waste of time. For example, if you are in a doctor’s waiting room or between planes in an airport and you haven’t a book and don’t want to read a magazine, perhaps if you look out the window and see a tree or watch a child playing you will find the feast that God has prepared for you. In other circumstances you would not take the time to meditate on a tree for a half an hour or dwell upon the innocence and gaiety of a child at play. But, accepting the moment, living right now, you can make the most of it; you can celebrate it.

Thus, we return to the open hand that receives, as against the clenched fist. The “how” of leisure is really contained in one word: thanksgiving. If gratitude fills our whole life, then our life will be filled with leisure. We have seen that leisure is the right balance between work and rest, freeing us to be fully alive. Leisure is also an end in itself, as celebration is, for which we need nothing but the time we take. And finally, leisure is thanksgiving.

As I said in the beginning, good work will simply grow out of this leisurely attitude. It is easy to see that every work that is well done bears the marks we have discovered in this analysis of leisure. Take any piece of good workmanship – the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a Beethoven symphony, a fine chair, a good cake, a nice bowl, or anything you are fond of. First of all, how was it made? Always, by someone who took his or her time; that is essential. If it had been made in a rush, you would know it. We can also recognize a certain give and take between the artist and the materials, as against a brutality that abuses materials, that imposes an idea arbitrarily from the outside. In a very good pot, for instance, the clay itself and the way it is located on the potter’s wheel contributes to the perfection of the work; the maker simply allows these things to happen. And a piece of good work will be meaningful. It will not be purely utilitarian or functional, unless we include the notion of celebration in the functional, as I think we should. In a word, a piece of good work will be alive; it will be a thing into which the aliveness of leisure has entered. It will be in marked contrast to the thing that has been turned out in a rush, without love, on an assembly line, for purely utilitarian purposes.

To the extent that we work in a leisurely way, our work and our labor enter into the sacrifice of Christ, because the gesture of sacrifice and the gesture of thanksgiving are closely related. This is what we are aiming at, the realization, as Teilhard put it, of “this deepest insight, that right from the hand that kneads the dough to those that consecrate it, the great and universal host should be prepared and handled in a spirit of adoration.” And the spirit of adoration is also the spirit of thanksgiving, the spirit of leisure.

Reprinted from Good Work
(Quarterly of the Catholic Art Association)
Vol. XXXII, Winter 1969, #1.

Br. David Steindl-RastWell-being
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.