Much of our culture’s attitude to work is displayed in the way that we describe its absence. In contemporary life, we think of Monday through Friday as a typical “work week” and tend to look forward to the “weekend” when we can have a “break” from work; even better than this are the intermittent “vacations” we are able to “take.” But a careful look at these terms will indicate that they convey not a fullness, a presence, but rather simply a temporary cessation of “work.” Our culture even justifies these “breaks” and “vacations” by recourse to productivity: a rested worker is a happy worker, and therefore a more productive worker.
In his best-known essay Musse und Kult (translated somewhat misleadingly in English as Leisure, The Basis of Culture),[i] the twentieth-century Catholic German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) makes clear that, in the light of both classical and Christian thought, this way of conceiving “work” is deeply misguided. Pieper opposed Hitler and the Third Reich, but saved his most poignant and trenchant critique for the persistent ways that post-war Europeans were focused on work, efficiency, and economic productivity to the exclusion of the life of worship, contemplation, and leisure.
Leisure, for Pieper, is not simply a “break” from working, nor even “refreshment” that one might return to work more rested. It is, rather, a state of openness to things as they are, to beauty, to God:
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness as this is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real – a co-respondence, eternally established in nature – has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.[ii]
Leisure is “the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit,”[iii] and has nothing to do with our flat conceptions of “down time” or “free time;” it is a state not of idleness but of deeply participative engagement. Leisure as Pieper understands it has nothing to do with laziness or with the Christian vice of acedia; it is not leisure but rather the lack of leisure which is characteristic of acedia. Pieper perceptively comments that acedia, sloth, may actually mask itself as busyness, not idleness, but retains in either case a kind of spiritual restlessness and inability-to-see which is the opposite of true leisure:
The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God – of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone with any experience of the narrow activity of the “workaholic.”[iv]
Humans, Pieper writes, ought not to see leisure as a way to make work sustainable, but rather ought to understand work as a way to make leisure sustainable: he quotes Aristotle that “we are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure.”[v] But leisure is not quite, for Pieper, an end in itself: the heart of leisure, he writes, consists in (communal) celebration or festival, a coming-together of “the relaxation, the effortlessness, the ascendancy of ‘being-at-leisure’ over mere ‘function.’”[vi] But if this is true, then leisure “would derive its innermost possibility and justification from the very source whence festival and celebration derive theirs. And this is worship.”[vii] In both biblical and Greco-Roman history, Pieper writes, the festival was directed to the cultus, the worship of the community, from which both “cult” and “culture” in modern English (and Kult in German) derive their origins. Festivals are occasions for worship (!), and Pieper points out that so-called “secular” festivals which are not organized around worship (e.g., the American Labor Day) are for the most part very recent inventions which nearly always lack the formative depth of properly “religious” festivals. Leisure, then, is for the festival; and the festival is for worship; and all of this, for Pieper, terminates in a sacrifice – for Christians, of course, the “one true and finally valid form of cultic worship, which is the sacramental Sacrifice of the Christian Church.”[viii] Christ’s sacrifice for us, come to us as sacrament, calls us out of everyday and idolatrous cycles of “work” and “productivity” into the things of God.
I have presented Pieper’s argument here so far without describing how it might apply to contemporary Christian engagement in psychology or psychiatry, in part because I want to encourage readers to explore Pieper’s brief essay (59 pages in the English translation) themselves and I do not want to do violence to Pieper’s rich and poetic reflection by a dumbed-down practical analysis. But I will raise the question by offering something of a confession. I write this fairly late in the evening after an outpatient clinic day (as a psychiatrist) in which I found my mind cluttered by the demands of a long-unfinished to-do list. As I listened to my patients, I found myself at times detached from them, mind wandering away, and I am quite sure that this had more to do with me than with them. I found it difficult (though, fortunately, not impossible) to celebrate with them, to inhabit and explore things of beauty with them, in part because my own soul felt dulled and distracted. And my patients also -- many of them caught in deep and unrelenting cycles of trauma, poverty, pain, unemployment, and unstable relationships – were focused not on beauty but on survival, on immediate and practical ends like medication side-effects and job-search strategies. I don’t experience the same sort of fragmentation that many of my patients do (for better or for worse, I occupy positions of privilege which they do not), but today we were commonly mired in a captivity to work – or if not to work, to the uncomfortable restlessness which comes from the inability to work when work is all that one really knows.
Pieper begins his work by quoting Ps. 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And so I am left to wonder: what would it mean for me as a psychiatrist, or for the patients for whom I care for so deeply, to be still – at leisure – in God’s presence?
Warren Kinghorn, MD, ThD
Duke University Medical School and Divinity School
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