Leisure and Work

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Come to me all you who toil and and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11: 28-30

Yahweh gives strength to the wearied,
strengthens the powerless.
The young may grow tired and weary,
youths may stumble,

but those who hope in Yahweh renew their strength,
they put out wings like eagles.
They run and do not grow weary,
walk and never tire.
Isaiah 40: 28-31

Many of us are profoundly tired. For so many who work to survive by the sweat of their brow there is, as there has been throughout human history, a deep physical weariness. But even for those of us whose work has become more mental than physical, who work with, and what feels sometimes like under, the advances of modern technology, our days seem burdened by a constant tension and pressure to accomplish more and more. One of the most persistent symptoms of a secularized society, of the loss of transcendence as meaningful constituent of human consciousness, is the totalization of a mentality of work. Although we might hesitate to recognize it, our taken-for-granted perspective is that our ultimate significance lies in our human strivings, in whatever we are able to accomplish by our own work. And this is exhausting.

In today’s readings, Jesus says that those who come to him and take up his yoke will find rest and experience a “burden” that is light, quite unlike the burden of our own exertion strivings. The passage from Isaiah tells us that it is “hope in Yahweh” that renews our strength. Life ceases to be the drudgery of mere work, of the strain of self-exertion, when we turn our eyes and heart to the Lord in hope. It is not doing our work that tires us but rather doing work that is not ours to do. Jesus’ yoke is living in obedience to God’s will, of submitting our own will and our own ambition and striving to what God would have us do. It is working in the hope that when we have done all we have been commanded to do, we then release the outcome, in hope, to the way of God’s ongoing creation.

When our work is merely our own, it is “hopeless.” We may have optimism that things will come out the way we think they should, but we cannot rest with those outcomes which are different from our designs. Yet, when we work under the “yoke” of Jesus, responding as best we can to God’s will, the burden of our work is light because we are merely “useless servants.” In a culture that is self-enclosed and limited to human exertion strivings, there is pleasure, but no joy. There is self-satisfaction, but no hope. There is inactivity, but no rest.

In 1948 the philosopher Josef Pieper presciently wrote of the danger that in losing our Divine moorings, we would come to lose the inherent complementarity between leisure in its deepest sense and work. If our work does not flow out of the deep attention and listening of a leisure that the mystical tradition calls rest, then it becomes a compulsive mode of activity that is but a masquerade of a deep spiritual idleness or sloth. Is it possible that our constant tiredness and busy-ness is but a manifestation of a spiritual laziness?

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.

In leisure, there is, furthermore, something of the serenity of “not-being-able-to grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will; there is in it something of the “trust in the fragmentary, that forms the very life and essence of history” . . . .

Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets oneself go, and “go under,” almost as someone who falls asleep must let oneself go (you cannot sleep unless you do so). . . . In such silent openness of the soul, it may be granted to one for only an instant to know “what the world/holds in its innermost,” so that afterwards the insights of that happy moment have to be re-discovered through the effort of “labor.”

Leisure: the Basis of Culture, pp. 31-33

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