7 Ways to practice rest and leisure this summer

By Ryan Mayer

In Book VIII of his “Politics,” Aristotle observes, “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both (action & leisure) are required, but leisure is better than action and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?” Even Aristotle seems to have wrestled with the age-old question that arises this time of year: what should we do for vacation?

The word “vacation” itself tells us that we have our priorities backward, coming from the Latin “vacare” or, “to be unoccupied.” The assumption behind the term is that our “free time” is defined as the time in which we are not doing the thing we normally do, namely work. In other words, our work defines our free time. Now, work is something essentially human and therefore good. Only human beings work, properly speaking. Besides its utility for earning money, our work is one of the ways that we act as co-creators with God, tending the garden of creation, and it is one of the principal ways that we contribute to the common good. Work is good. But, as Pope St. John Paul II said, “The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. … In the first place, work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’” (“Laborem Exercens,” 6). Seems like John Paul the Great and Aristotle are both onto something here.

Our culture suffers from an overemphasis on “doing” over “being.” Consider that one of the first questions we ask one another when we meet is, “So, what do you do?” Being should not be understood as a passive term. Even when we are not “doing work” we are still doing something. What is it that we are doing? “Being” human. This is precisely what leisure is for – being human in the highest ways. We do not rest in order to go back to work. Rather, we work so that we might make time for leisure. This is the main difference between leisure and vacation. “Vacation” can only be understood with reference to work (vacation is “not-being-at-work”). Leisure, however, need not only be defined by what we’re not doing, but by what we are actively engaged in. Rest, in the Christian sense, is not something passive, but focused.

But to return to the question posed by Aristotle, “what ought we to do when at leisure?” Here are seven ways to rest and practice true leisure this summer.

1 Be still.

We cannot rest unless we are still, unless we are quiet. Stillness doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of noise or external activity. In his little book “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper writes that leisure is a kind of interior silence whereby we allow some other, higher aspect of reality into our lives. Our leisure, then, is the way in which we do precisely this: make our interior selves open in something we might not otherwise be able to. Where are you in need of silence and stillness this summer?

Leisure creates time to reflect.

2 Go somewhere.

There is a story of a young boy saying to his father, “Father, if God is the same everywhere, why do you go somewhere else to pray?” “Because,” the boy’s father replied, “I am not the same everywhere.” Sometimes we need to go somewhere else to just be.

3 Go on pilgrimage.

Let’s combine the first two items in this list into a third. Pilgrimage. In the same way that we are not the same everywhere, everywhere is not the same. Some places are more conducive to leisure, to that particular, still, singular focus of the soul. Find someplace that is set apart and go. You don’t even have to go far. The California missions are wonderful pilgrimage sites that are not only of historical interest but are beautiful and spiritually renewing.

4 Go to school. Hear me out.

The ancient Greek word for leisure is “schole” from which we derive the word “school.” Wait, what? That’s right. In ancient Greek culture, only someone with enough free time could engage in leisure and enjoy intellectual pursuits. Pursuing and contemplating what is true and good and beautiful is the pursuit of God. Sometimes school gets in the way of this, to be sure. As you plan your summer leisure, ask, “How will I pursue God in what is true, good and beautiful?” That’s leisure.

5 Seek Beauty.

All of creation is a school of beauty. It is no wonder that many people choose to spend their leisure time in the outdoors. Go outside.

6 “Waste” time with family and loved ones.

One of the side effects of a culture of “doing” over “being” is that we can sometimes feel guilty for not always doing. Pope Francis has encouraged parents to “waste time” with their children so that their children come to know that they are valued simply for being. The thing about love is that it must be free. Spend time just being with one another this summer.

7 Make the days holy.

If leisure is about being human in the highest ways, then leisure must include the worship of God. Whether you’re at home or out of town this summer, continue to make time to keep holy the Sabbath by actively participating in the Mass and in daily prayer. Visit masstimes.org to find a Mass near you or go to http://ibreviary.com/ to pray with the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours (they also have a free app). The Hallow app is also a good app for daily prayer.

Work is good, but we are made for rest.

–Mayer is director of the Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment, Archdiocese of San Francisco.