Let's Play in God's Fields
by William R. Matthews (May / June 2000 — Volume 16, Number 3)
Holy leisure stands alongside prayer and work as vital to life in God
"As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart" (2 Samuel 6:16 New International Version).
That passage describes a human spiritual dilemma: what is sacred and what is not.
In the sixth century, the layman St. Benedict described Christian life, in a monastery and outside it, as requiring a rhythmic succession of prayer, work, and holy leisure.1 One can no more spend all day kneeling before an altar than he or she can digging a garden, writing an essay, playing tennis, or watching television.
"Most of us have no other access to God and the good life except now, except here," writes Sister Joan D. Chittester in her fine book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.2 To be holy and fulfilled, one needs to find God in all things, which is why monasteries stop regularly for prayer and why Benedict's petition to God is that all we do, including our leisure, be considered God's Word for us and brought to perfection.
Prayer finds its alternating rhythms in the biblical events of the church year, and work in the garden in its variety of seasonal requirements. Leisure too must find its alternations. Centuries before the Christian era, Ecclesiastes had it right:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven...a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance...(3:1,4 NIV)
Robert Lee in Religion and Leisure in America writes, "...leisure is not so much a period of time, as it is a state of mind."3 It is the freedom to decide. "What is needed is not the means for whiling away the excess time, but rather a perspective which gives meaning to the time, an outlook which redeems the time." Eons ago Aristotle maintained, "the aim of education is the wise use of leisure."4
If we follow Christ's example, we may pray all night, exhaust ourselves helping others, have religious arguments, retreat often, stand up and ultimately die for what we believebut also feast and dance, discuss things with friends, and enjoy God's gift of life. The tragedy of modern humanity is the lack of balance between these extremes, the utter absence of holy leisure.
Work and Leisure
A running joke in Benedictine communities is that the order's motto, ora et labora (prayer and work) ought to be ora et labora et labora et labora. Holy leisure is not an escape from work into the spa, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or television sitcom. It is not even escape into something as positive as leading Girl Scouts or teaching Sunday School, often labors themselves.
Holy leisure, as do prayer and work, serves God. It may sometimes be self-refreshment or refreshment by another. But it must result in a return to work and prayer with renewal and joy.
Holy leisure may require a complete change of lifestyle. My wife Irene protests, I am the busiest man she knows. Work has become my existence. Writing, for example, brings daily joy and satisfaction, as did nine retirement years of teaching university students.
In my life, labor and leisure have largely meshed, and I have seldom experienced that state of mind Charles Cummings in The Mystery of the Ordinary describes this way: "To stop and rest is to trust that the world will go on in an orderly fashion without my help for a few minutes or a few hours."5
Absorbed in my writing, I am surprised when Irene announces lunch. Meditating, I consult my watch. My daily walk requires 30 minutes, no more no less. If I meet a friend on campus, I am tempted to stride on in order not to cut into my writing time. When I schedule a long weekend with no work, I grow restless and uneasy, bored by hour upon hour of old movies or football games. I used to find escape in page-turner adventure novels. Reading is now an assigned chore much as it was when I was teaching literature, so many pages to be covered daily at such and such hours.
What is there about human beings that makes endeavor alone important? Why have I lost the ability to play? Why do I, like thin-lipped Michal from that tower window, sneer at the man who builds model trains, or the woman who adores doll houses? With what joy do I get down on the floor to build block buildings with my grandsons. But with what guilt.
Benedict's genius was to recognize that leisure is also God's and should be so absorbing as to be timeless. Still those monastery bells peal regularly, reminding us whose we are, and calling the community to prayer, work, and play. Order in all of life, they toll, right priorities, and balance, are essential.
The Lord looked over the six days of his creation — saw "it was very good" (Genesis 1:31 NIV) — and then rested. Is this not a pattern for all men and women? Cannot we too take time out to look back over our own creations, prayer, and labor — see that they are good — thank God for them and then rest in celebration? Describing the Jewish Sabbath, Cummings writes: "Work was forbidden on the day of rest, but the Sabbath was intended to be celebrated with joy, with eating and drinking, making love, lighting special candles, holding instruction and worship services, inviting guests."6
How to celebrate in leisure? The choice is ours: play this sport, go to this event, watch this television program, read this book, or sit still and merely be. God permits all that is human and wholesome. No need to cram things into this "free" time to fulfill the modern need to go back to work to rest up from play, and no need to plan it. If the monk's attention wanders during the evening's sacred reading, do you think that God cares? Holy leisure is a time for oneself alone, but always in the sight of, and to the glory of, God.
In The Cloister Walk Kathleen Norris reports that Benedictines know how to party.7 My lone experience of monastic retreat was to "Our Lady of the Snows" in northern South Dakota: the warm welcome of us Protestants, the quiet, the peace, the regular times for prayer, the refreshment cart rolled in at 10, and the solitude in each spare guest cell created a real joy, not the artificial joy of Frazier or Seinfeld. That weekend from 20 years ago still resonates in my life.
Times of stillness are when we are closest to God, who in 2000 no longer seems to shout from whirlwind, flood, or volcano. Holy leisure comes when I ignore my puny ego, so apparently important in prayer and vocation: "I did a good job teaching today" or "I was really into my devotions this morning." Holy leisure says it doesn't matter who wins or loses Sunday's tennis game. St. Augustine wrote: "Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going."8
Robert Lee says, "'Be still, and know that I am God,' really means in its full contemporary biblical setting: 'Cease, stop, relax, Shut Up!...Have leisure and know that I am God.'"9 Bring this moment to perfection is Benedict's unceasing prayer. I need to pray and work as hard as I can, hoping my efforts help perfect God's world; but then I need to rest and bask in joy at what I have done, how I have prayed.
Holy leisure is a time of no time — a time when, as Walt Whitman said, "I loaf and invite my soul."10 Such loafing is as crucial as working and praying. The trinity in balance creates a joyful life.
On the seventh day, God rested, with no evidence he did or did not turn on the television, play basketball, or go for a walk. Which is not to say I cannot. But the most valuable leisure is when I do "nothing": count my breaths, muse on the clouds, just be.
I define my life with words like "teacher," "writer," and "husband," all of which assume that success means doing. Yet after more than 50 years of sharing love and friendship with my wife, I find we spend more and more moments merely being for one another.
One gift of long years is the insight that actions are not ultimately important. Kathleen Norris describes visiting a dying old monk who, when the nurse announced he had two visitors, responded: "It's a sweet life."11
I often forget that God wants me to laugh, to enjoy, to be myself, to rest. "Peace comes from living a measured life," says Sister Joan. "Peace comes from attending to every part of my world in a sacramental way."12 Peace comes from holy leisure!
William R. Matthews, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, is an emeritus professor of English at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is currently a freelance author, and a member of Muhlenberg Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
1. Joan D. Chittester, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of the St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), p. 34.
2. Ibid., p. 6.
3. Robert Lee, Religion and Leisure in America (New York: Abington, 1964), p. 11.
4. Ibid,. 205, 32.
5. Charles Cumming, The Mystery of the Ordinary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 71.
6. Ibid., p. 73.
7. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead, 1996), p. 175.
8. Quoted in The Cloister Walk, p. 167.
9. Lee, p. 262.
10. Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass."
11. Norris, p. 366.
12. Chittester, p. 186.