Holy leisure is at the heart of a culture of life
By Frederick Everett
What do you think of when you hear the word “leisure”? Do you think of weekend getaways, watching TV, gardening, reading a book, taking a walk, praying to God or just taking a nap? Is it time that you treasure, time that you feel that you have to justify to yourself (or others) or, perhaps, do you think of it as just wasted time?
Interestingly, the way that each of us answers this question will help determine the type of culture in which we live — including whether or not we live in a culture of life, where every human being is cherished and respected from the moment of conception. How is it, you might wonder, that our idea of leisure can be so important?
This past summer, while at a conference for diocesan pro-life directors from across the country, a young woman religious from the Sisters of Life gave a talk on the subject of holy leisure and how it is related to building a culture of life. Before the talk, I had my reservations on how helpful or interesting a talk it was going to be: After the conference, I confessed to my wife that the sister’s was the best talk, hands down. Here’s why.
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, SV, not only gave an inspiring talk, but she was simply a delightful person to hear and behold. She spoke cheerfully and from the heart, in measured tones that bespoke an inner peace and joy. In fact, part of her message was that unless we are able to radiate such peace and joy, and delight in others, we cannot build a true culture of life. The only path to achieving this is by delving into — you guessed it — holy leisure.
Leisure, after all, is not just time spent not working. It is an attitude of mind, a capacity to be in touch with your true self and marvel at the world. It involves both a disposition of receptivity and reverence. It is, most profoundly, the capacity to appreciate the beauty, truth and goodness of creation as the gift of a gracious creator. As she would put it, “Leisure is not time off — it’s time in.”
Relating this concept of leisure to the spiritual life, Sister Mariae Agnus Dei quoted a moving passage from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton:
“I set off into the woods and soon found an outlet in a meadow; and a chestnut tree with rich moss underneath and a warm sun overhead. Here, then, was a sweet bed. The air still, a clear blue vault above — the numberless sounds of spring melody and joy filled the air — and my heart was made to be as innocent as a human heart could be, filled with an enthusiastic love for God and admiration of His works. … God was my father, my all. I prayed, sang hymns, cried, laughed and talked to myself about how far He could place me above my sorrow. Then I laid still to enjoy the heavenly peace that came over my soul; and I am sure, in the two hours so enjoyed, grew 10 years in the spiritual life.”
This ability to contemplate the goodness of creation stands at the center of our spiritual journey that is echoed all the way back to the story of creation. God not only created everything good — and human beings very good — but He also rested on the seventh day in order to contemplate the goodness of His creation and to delight in it. This is why He commanded us to do the same. We are to delight in Him and in all that He has made so that the immense gratitude that we feel becomes the source of the peace and joy that we can radiate to others.
The Sisters of Life have made this attitude an intentional part of their ministry with women experiencing a crisis pregnancy. The call it “Delighting in Her.” They try to echo God’s gaze of joyous delight, asking Him to move them by the goodness that He has inscribed in these women.
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei told the story of one woman who had mistakenly walked into the Bronx crisis pregnancy center, thinking it was an abortion clinic. After listening empathetically to her fears and concerns, she invited the woman to join her and the other sisters for a day in the country in upstate New York. The sisters made it a point to ask the Holy Spirit to help them see the woman’s good qualities and to delight in them. “We sought to express that delight to her, like a mirror to reflect her goodness back to her — whether it was her smile, her courage, her strength or sense of humor.”
After a day with the sisters, this woman’s sense of worth and beauty – something that is often strangled by the fears and difficulties of an unexpected pregnancy — was restored. In remembering her own goodness, she began to be able to affirm the goodness of the child that she was carrying. She had regained the confidence that she could, in fact, bring this child into the world — and she was actually excited about it.
The importance of learning to delight in each other in this way cannot be overstated. Nobody wants to be an object of pity or the project of someone who just wants to help them. As the Rev. William Virtue puts so well:
“The power of love to affirm the other person is this: Love is first an act of being moved by the other’s goodness. As we manifest our delight, this reveals to the other his or her goodness. This experience of being confirmed in one’s worth is the emotional ‘food’ that nourishes the growth of the human heart. … The acts that we do for the other person should be proceeded by first being moved — otherwise the other person gets the impression that we love them only because we are good, and not because of any goodness in them moving us. But the other is affirmed precisely in the realization that it is the goodness of his or her being which is the cause of our delight.”
According to Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, in our workaholic world that focuses on productivity, “we have really lost sight of who we are because we have lost sight of who God is.” When we enter into holy leisure, we enter into God’s loving gaze and remember our dignity — not only as human beings created in His image and likeness — but as His redeemed sons and daughters called to an ever-deepening divine transformation. This — and only this — can be the foundation for building a true culture of life that can endure.”
Frederick Everett, JD, is co-director of the Family Life Office for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.