It is almost summertime in Canada – vacation time – so we can finally give ourselves permission to discover some of the hidden treasures of wasting time. In life, we must take time, make time, and even "waste" time in order to accomplish anything truly human: to listen to another person, to love, to contemplate beauty, to worship God.
In Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper presents a convincing case, as his title implies, that recovering a sense of leisure is necessary for our human development and flourishing. Traditionally, wasting time was a sign of irresponsibility. But now, in a society described by Pieper as one of "total work," we are realizing that constant work and busyness can be the very means of flight from responsibility for our own souls.
In a culture that has abandoned the weekly sanctuary of the Sabbath rest, a "totalitarianism" of work – a mentality of pressure, pragmatism and productivity – can invade every aspect of life, leaving us feeling harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. We need to push back against this spiritual power of oppression, and with a firm right hand extended like a stop sign, invoke words attributed to God in His creation of the land out of the primeval chaos: "Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled."
We need to fight for our free time, and work for a space to rest. But after a place of refuge is established, or once the cottage is built, we go there not for constant renovations, but for rest and relaxation. Time for leisure, culture, and play. Treasured time for a contemplative appreciation of the world around us, softening the spirit with a sense of wonder and awe, even worship.
We all need our daily breaks, weekly rests and summer holidays. Winter in Canada can be cabin-fever, four months of staring at four walls. Summer is freedom, with broad vistas of the outdoors, breathing fresh air, walking in the park, sitting on the porch, lying on the beach. Physical activity can be intense or restorative, depending upon our goals. For the sake of leisure, we might want to pursue relaxing activities – swimming, biking, hiking or other sports – not to push our limits, but for moderate exercise which also allows for a contemplative enjoyment of our surroundings.
Wasting time on such leisure activities in a world tightly squeezed by time-constraints, carves out a space for what some spiritual writers call "natural" contemplation, or Robert Sibley, in his book A Rumour of God, refers to as the mysticism of the mundane. "You become attentive by deliberate acts of attention," Sibley writes. "That is, our capacity for everyday mystical experience is, to some degree at least, a matter of education in the Aristotelian sense of habituation. In the same way that we become 'educated' golfers... we become skilled at the practice of everyday mysticism by paying attention, by looking instead of thinking..."
The mention of golf is instructive. In my experience, golf offers a unique blend of contemplation and activity. If it were only a sport for me, I might be obsessed with improving my score. But it is more leisure, a mini-vacation, a portal to another dimension where time slows down and pressure evaporates like a morning mist. The emerald links evoke for me something almost magical, the aura of an Arcadian pastoral idyll of green pastures and still waters that restore the soul.
"Keep your eye on the ball" and "Keep your head down" are mantras for all golf beginners. The human tendency is to be distracted from the present moment, lift our head, and live in the future, longing to see the ball in the hole before ever taking the shot. Of course there are much more important things in life than paying attention to a golf ball. But learning to pay attention to something is an absolutely essential human art that we must all learn to cultivate.
Contemporary culture seems to be suffering from a universal diagnosis of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD, itself an acronym reflective of our frantic desire to move at hyper-speed, is a condition of perpetual distraction and disassociation from one's own self. Natural contemplation can teach us that if we gaze long enough upon any created thing, a veil is lifted and its innate goodness is revealed – be it a wild flower, another person, or our own souls.
Attentiveness in golf (or other forms of natural contemplation) produces immediate rewards that may inspire in us a similar zeal in our mystical contemplation of God in worship. If you keep your eye on the ball, you will succeed. If you succumb to distraction, the effect is instantaneous and dramatic, as your ball sails straight into the still waters or fades into the deep woods.
In church, what is the measure of our mindfulness, and who evaluates our attentiveness? How do we know we are really praying? Perhaps while kneeling we are distracted by the person next to us, or worries about work, or wondering what's for dinner. Golf obliges its practitioners to be re-converted continually to the present moment. In our relations with God and other people, we also need this firm but gentle re-conversion to attentiveness.
Robert Sibley cites a profound insight from the philosopher Austin Farrer: "The chief impediment to religion in this age, I often think, is that no one ever looks at anything at all: not so as to contemplate it, to apprehend what it is to be that thing, and plumb, if we can, the deep fact of its individual existence."
Jesus made a similar remark in the Gospels, lamenting that many people have eyes but do not see.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic priest who not only dutifully celebrated Mass every day, but also "wasted" time writing poetry to help us appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation by paying attention to individual created things – like a kingfisher, a dragonfly, or how the shining of shook foil reveals the grandeur of God.
In the Book of Revelation, St. John the seer testifies that he saw an open door to heaven and heard a voice say, "Come up here." His exile to the island of Patmos in the Aegean sea was not exactly a vacation, but it did give him leisure for contemplation, the occasion to witness in a vision the liturgy of heaven.
During the short Canadian summer, time spent at a cottage on a lake would seem to inspire humbler ambitions. But why set human limits to the grace of God? Jesus apparently encouraged us to "waste" enough time to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to practice natural contemplation and the mysticism of the mundane, the open door to wonder and worship.
Father Tim McCauley is a priest at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa.
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