Living the Feasts: The Importance of True Leisure

Aug 9, 2022

Fr. Aaron Kelly, Ph.L.

Just over a month ago, before returning from Rome for the summer, I had the opportunity to take a friend to Casa Balthasar for the first time. Casa Balthasar is a place I have come to know and love, which under the direction of Rev. Jacques Servais, S.J., seeks to provide a place of prayer and discernment under the guidance of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the twentieth-century theologians Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Adrienne Von Speyr, and Henri DeLubac. On that warm, spring afternoon, we had the opportunity to have lunch with the residents of Casa Balthasar, speak about theology, listen to Fr. Servais share stories about encounters he had with theologians like Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), and even listen to the residents beautifully sing a few pieces by Mozart.

As my friend and I boarded the bus to head across the city of Rome to the seminary, he remarked: “They sure know how to live an authentic life of leisure. There is something about that which is very beautiful, and I wish I could have.” This comment led me to think about other experiences I had at Casa Balthasar, whether it was time on retreat or Easter Sunday Mass and lunch. Two realizations came to mind that I think embody the way of life at Casa Balthasar: first, the importance of living according to the feasts and worship of the liturgical year; and second, allowing leisure to be grounded in the pursuit of the beautiful, the pursuit of God.

Western society has become obsessed with work and productivity. There is an emphasis on trying to get the most things done as quickly as possible. Society has become obsessed with numbers, reaching quotas, and trying to make the most money. This “work-a-holic” mentality has led to the demise of leisure. Leisure is not merely “free time,” or the absence of work or things to do. Rather, leisure is something much higher and of a far greater value because it puts man in contact with his fundamental reality, with who he is, and puts him into connection with his Creator. There is a transcendent value to leisure. Because of this, leisure brings a greater fulfillment to man than his work.

If leisure is not merely free time, what is it? Josef Pieper, a twentieth-century German Catholic philosopher, seeks to give an understanding of leisure in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. According to Pieper, leisure is more a state of being than a period of time free from work, a state of the soul that is fundamentally receptive. Not all “time off” and “vacation” is leisure. Pieper writes:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness 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 perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

Leisure disposes a person to accept the real. It prepares man to encounter that which is most real, yet simultaneously shrouded in mystery, namely God himself. Pieper notes that leisure is not about seizing, but of letting go and allowing oneself to be seized by the mystery of his existence and his Creator. It is for this reason that Pieper emphatically states: “leisure does not exist for the sake of work.” Leisure is of an eminently higher value than just the absence of work; it serves to preserve freedom and culture.

Leisure finds its origin in the festival and is intimately connected to religious feasts and divine worship. Pieper proposes that the origin of leisure is celebration, and that the idea of celebration and festival finds its origin in divine worship. Pieper further writes:

Divine worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want – because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means voluntary offering freely given. It definitely does not involve utility; it is in fact absolutely antithetic to utility. Thus, the act of worship creates a store of real wealth that cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds and goods are deliberately squandered, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns. Such wastefulness is, we repeat, true wealth; the wealth of the festival time. And only in this festival time can leisure unfold and come to fruition.

True leisure is a sacrifice because it is a generous gift of oneself to his Creator and to others. Divorced from worship and festival, “leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.” The crisis of leisure in Western society is due to the disconnect between leisure and worship. Pieper states that the void left by the absence of worship becomes filled with the “mere killing of time and by boredom,” which are not satisfactory to the nature of man.

There is a further regrettable consequence that results from the removal of worship, namely the diminishment and destruction of culture. Pieper writes: “Culture lives on religion through divine worship. And when culture itself is endangered, and leisure is called in question, there is only one thing to be done: to go back to the first and original source.” The answer to a lack of culture is God, the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Returning to that afternoon at Casa Balthasar, I think that the residents embody the form of life that Josef Pieper describes. The residents live according to the rhythm of the Church’s liturgical year, according to her feasts and her worship. Feasts and solemnities are kept as such, while days of fasting and penance are also kept as such. At Casa Balthasar, the rhythm of life is guided by worship and creates an atmosphere in which there is space to experience the presence of God, to be attuned to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and to have a stillness that allows for an encounter with the truth of reality. Then, having experienced the presence of God and His mighty works, one cannot help but be led into a song in praise of the Creator for the gifts of life, faith, and fellowship. At times, words alone are not a sufficient means of expressing what God has done, and something like music or art is able to add a further element. In short, that afternoon at Casa Balthasar was an experience of authentic leisure and living, grounded in the desire for nothing but the greater glory of God.

As the summer months provide an opportunity for more rest, perhaps it is an opportunity to examine how we can incorporate true leisure into our lives all year long. The first step is to keep Christ at the center of our lives and to be in awe of His works so that we are led to worship and praise of the Creator. When we have recognized the presence of God in our lives and what He has done, we cannot help but celebrate. We must remove from our lives the temptation to focus so much on our work and those things that seem “useful” that we forget to pause and make time to be with God. In the end, nothing is more useful than leisure because it places us in contact with our fundamental reality as children of God. Our lives should become a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast” (1 Cor 5:7–8).

Father Aaron Kelly is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, NY. Fr. Aaron is currently pursuing a licentiate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 2021, Fr. Aaron completed his baccalaureate in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2018, he earned his first licentiate in philosophy from The Catholic University of America. In his free time, Deacon Aaron enjoys reading, traveling with friends, and playing the organ.