One would think that the topic of leisure has no place in theological or spiritual reflection. It seems like something one does between periods of important work. At the very least, it is something that one reverts to when one needs a restorative period of refueling before one gets back to the important job at hand. It is a sort-of vacation (literally a sucking out, an emptying of destructive and exhausting forces that weaken and cripple one’s efforts). One often hears spoken words of honor for someone’s ‘work ethic’ but never for one’s ‘leisure ethic’!
But there has always been present in our scriptural consciousness a different perspective. When God created Adam and Eve he put them into a Garden of Delights where there was no shame and no work. Work was given to them as a punishment after the Fall. So what did they do all day? The answer strangely is ‘Pray and Play’.
By prayer we mean communication with God, that ongoing conversation we are called into from our disparate and mixed up lives. We read that God liked to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. What a beautiful image of prayer: a leisurely walk with God in the evening while the scent of the flowers and the fruits fill the air with their delicious fragrance! But they also must have spent the day enjoying the beauty of the garden and sharing with each other the joys of creation. We must not forget the limits of the story of Adam and Eve, since we are accustomed to lots of boredom-relieving activities that make the picture of our first parents seem the heights of ennui!
But we must see the basics of the story: when God created Adam and Eve and before the Fall from grace through sin, there was prayer and play: the life of loving God and loving each other through communication and delight.
The effects of sin were work, pain of birthing children and contentiousness (Cain and Abel). The exile from the Garden of Paradise ushered in sweat and toil. Gone were the days of prayer and play!
But not completely. God knit together underwear for them and still cared for human beings. God never abandons His creation. Even when it turns against Him He is ever ready to forgive and to rebuild.
Enshrined in subsequent revelatory commandments, God sought to keep Israel on the right path. With regard to our topic, he gave them the great gift of the Sabbath, establishing in the weekly order a day of holy leisure to be protected by His commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day. It is essential to see what honor this gives to play and leisure. It is not a waste of time; it is a consecration of time to God and his activity. The Sabbath rest is holy and makes sense of the other days of work and toil. It humanizes the rest. One would even go further and say that the Sabbath divinizes all activity by putting it firmly in the context of growing in the energy of Divine creative life.
This refraining from ‘servile’ work, that is, the work of servants, ennobles the human person and makes him an imitator of the Creator God who also used leisure to be able to admire the work of the other six days.
With the Incarnation of the Word (Logos) of God, even our work has become a way to God when it is properly understood in the Father’s plan.
All of this means that our leisure is meant to be a holy time: certainly to be experienced in tranquility and order, but also to be seen as a humanizing aspect of God’s plan, provided we do not make our leisure time an excuse for sloth and, even more nefariously, a time for sin.
Pets often are a wonderful way God reminds us of this. When I used to share my space and time with Siamese cats, they taught me to marvel at their beauty, their fidelity, their independence. I became a more loving and caring person due to their presence in my life. Those who have these feline or canine companions readily understand what I mean. Animals enjoy their leisure time and delight in our presence, giving us an example of how we need to spend all our time with God who delights in us and in our intelligence and free will, and accepts gratefully our fealty and service.
But with this difference: God does not just view us as another species without many of the advantages of divinity. Rather, He calls us ‘friends’ thereby bringing us into a strange and admittedly lopsided equality. He does this by slowly and gracefully revealing His image and likeness in us. We will never be Gods in the same way God is God, but we can mirror and resemble His beauty.
Holy leisure makes us appreciate the gift of living and provides the hope and peace that helps us surmount the many sufferings of life.