The Message of Leisure & Scholé: Chapter 3 – the nature of leisure

As a summer special, Scholé Sisters is publishing a blog series through Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture. This is the book that brought scholé back into our vocabulary. Instead of writing about the book or writing additional commentary, however, we’re taking a thought-by-thought paraphrase approach, chapter-by-chapter. Like The Message is to the Bible, so this series is to Leisure: common idiom, loose paraphrase, with some clarifications and connections and elaborations added for the reader’s benefit. Enjoy!

Previously: Chapter 2, part 3 – The leisure to be free

So, in discussing the “knowledge worker” – one who defines himself and his activity by its usefulness in the world – we see such a person has three distinguishing characteristics:

  • His energy is directed outwardly all the time
  • He does not recognize any spiritual or eternal meaning
  • He finds value in being a productive part of the economy

To such a person, leisure is a foreign concept. The only kind of leisure he would understand is as idleness and laziness.

The medievals had an entirely different idea in mind when they talked about leisure. Idleness and laziness were, to them, actually opposed to leisure rather than a type of it.

It was, indeed, a lack of leisure, a spirit of restlessness, that brought on idleness. They believed that living for one’s work actually caused restlessness and idleness while also preventing leisure.

After all, to them leisure was not a lack of activity, but activity directed at other aims than social usefulness. It was activity of the mind and spirit toward spiritual reality. It is because our culture has denied the spiritual nature of the world and of people that we are left with the economy as our highest good and with the day off as our only form of leisure.

But in the Middle Ages, idleness – called acedia – was one of the Deadly Sins. The root of acedia – which we might now call depression – was that a person gave up on being who he was. He ignored his calling, denied his spiritual identity, and spent time in restless inattention. Kierkegaard identified it as not wanting to be oneself.

Being idle, lazy, restless, and despondent is incongruous with being made in the image of God. And living for mammon, for the love of money or social status, for industriousness or productivity alone will inevitably lead to such despair precisely because it denies – or at least ignores – the fact that we are image bearers of God created for something more lasting and more important.

True leisure, on the other hand, puts us in touch with our fully human nature – the material and the spiritual together.

One who is at leisure is not at all idle. He is not one at home when he has business to do; he does not lay about when duty calls. He is not a thumb-twiddler, dawdler, or window-gazer.

Rather, his inner eye is directed at the heart of things. His heart is not set on things of this world, but on seeing truth – on seeing Christ – in all things.

The way to fix acedia – dullness-of-heart – is not through more industry and effort expended toward personal gain. Rather, we solve acedia – which most of us face at one point or another – through cheerful, contended affirmation of the created order. By not only knowing but also loving and worshiping God for what He has done: creating and sustaining the world, giving humanity His own image and calling individuals to selfless service, saving a people for Himself. Understanding and enjoying such truths is the antidote to a restless heart and an idle mind.

As Augustine said:

[pullquote align=”center”]Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.


We must actually be lifted outside of our own selves and our personal gain to experience leisure, to experience real life. Real life is not found by becoming a workaholic nor by becoming a lazy bum. Real life is found in living according to reality – the reality God created and upholds. And such living requires leisure, requires stepping outside the means of production and subsistence and self-seeking and aligning oneself with God.

Idleness, in fact, has so little in common with leisure, that they could be said to be opposites. Idleness is actually a lack of leisure. Idleness is a lack of meaning and purpose, whereas leisure is a condition of the soul where one not only sees meaning and purpose, but loves it and desires to live according to it.

The problem with the Worker mentality is that it doesn’t allow the time, space, and spiritual awareness to know, much less love, eternal meaning and purpose – that is, the glory of God.

Leisure, then, is not necessarily found in vacations, weekends, time off, or breaks. Building such into our schedule will, by itself, not ensure we have leisure.

The man of leisure and the Worker are opposed in their identity more than in their schedules. The Worker finds his personal value and identity in what he accomplishes. The man of leisure finds his personal value and identity not from his job but in who he is – he is made in the image of God and made for relationship with God.

Leisure, then, is a state of the soul, a mindset, an attitude. It is receptive, still, calm. It is not preoccupied with worldly affairs, but attune to the spiritual. Only one who can be still and quiet can notice, can see, can hear. Leisure is time spent noticing, seeing, hearing something outside yourself and your agenda.

Leisure is a disposition that desires to behold and to receive. Leisure is opposed to inserting and asserting oneself into the world. Rather, it is the attitude, the humble posture, of one who is observing the world with loving care and interest. He does not think of himself at all; his attention is on the truth of what is before him, not so that he can improve himself or gain power, but simply because he desires to know and understand. He cares. He loves.

Leisure is also the spirit of celebration. It considers truth, it beholds the world, not to get something out of it, but simply to celebrate it, to enjoy it, to give a hearty “Amen!” to God’s work in the world. Leisure is founded on an inner joyfulness. Thus, leisure is only possible for one who is in harmony with himself as a being created for a specific purpose and who is in harmony with the entire purpose of the world itself. He sees himself as a small part of a much larger whole and celebrates the work Another is doing with it all.

Leisure lives on affirmation. Leisure is not the absence of activity – not at all. It is a different sort of activity.

Leisure is contemplative, but that is not the same as a form of meditation that empties the mind. Rather, the mind is so filled with truth and with joy that there is no room left for selfish considerations. It is similar to the atmosphere between a newlywed couple, each caught up in the joy of being one with the other – the identity has shifted from being Me, Myself, and I and what I want out of this life and has become seeing myself in another, identifying myself with another, caught up in a story where I am not the protagonist but simply part of the backdrop – and I rejoice to take my place there because it is part of the glory, not meaningless at all.

Leisure lives on affirmation, and the highest form of affirmation is festival. A festive mindset is peace and contemplation mixed with intensity of and joy in life. Leisure does not always look like outer calm and repose, but is grounded in an inner calm, a soul’s repose. If the soul is not at peace, there will be no leisure. If the soul is at peace, the body is free to truly celebrate and live life abundantly.

It is this festive nature of leisure that gives it its “effortless” feel – not because there in no activity, but because it is caught up in meaning and joy outside of oneself.

Finally, the mindset of leisure and the identity as a Worker are opposed in their use of “time off.”

To the Worker, to the man who believes we exist to get things done in the world, the only reason to take time off is the weakness of the mind and body – it will only continue working well if it receives physical rest. The point of vacations or time off is so that one can return to work, able to work better.

To be sure, leisure itself will send one back to the calls of duty renewed and refreshed and reinvigorated. Yet that is not why leisure time is taken. It is merely a side benefit and not the point, not the end.

No matter how much strength and vigor one receives from leisure, the leisure does not exist for the work but the work for the leisure. It is the leisure that is the ultimate end, for leisure time is worship time. We were created to worship and we will spend eternity worshiping. The leisure is the point. It puts us in touch with eternity, with reality.

We don’t have to justify taking leisure time by citing how it gives us bodily renewal or mental refreshment and brings us back better than ever. That is basing our worth on our work.

Rather, we take leisure time because we were designed for it and can only live as fully human when we spend time not toiling for our bread but reaching for the bread of life, the living water. Drinking in living water requires no other justification.

It is true that praying before bed helps you sleep better. But that does not make prayer a sleep-aid. In fact, using it as such diminishes and perhaps even ruins it. Rather than praying because we love God, we’re praying for own ends – and that is not prayer at all.

So leisure does give us the benefits of renewal and restoration, but that’s not why we take the time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.

Seeking first the kingdom of God so that we get all the things added unto us is actually not seeking the kingdom of God first at all.

So it is with leisure, because leisure is being mindful of God’s work in the world, of our true place in the world, and of God’s glory in it all.

True leisure provides an escape route from anxiety, restlessness, and despondency, but that’s not why we take it. We take it because we were made for it. The relief that we receive happens because rather than fighting the reality of the created order, we celebrate it and live in harmony with it.

Mystie’s opening talk for the Scholé Sisters Learning Well Retreat will apply these ideas about leisure and life to us as homeschooling moms. Don’t miss it!

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