PRAYER: Contemplation And Leisure—To Work Playfully by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Contemplation And Leisure—To Work Playfully by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

This brings us to the topic of leisure.  To recover a healthy understanding of leisure is to come a long way toward understanding contemplation.  But few words we use are as misunderstood as the word “leisure.”  This shows itself right away when we speak of work and leisure as a pair of opposites.  Are the two poles of activity really work and leisure?  If this were so, how could we speak of leisurely work?  It would be a blatant contradiction.  We know, however, that working leisurely is no contradiction at all.  In fact, work ought to be done with leisure, if it is to be done well.

What then is the opposite of work?  It is play.  These are the two poles of all activity: work and play.  And what we have come to understand about purpose and meaning will help us see this more clearly.  Whenever you work, you work for some purpose.  If it weren’t for that purpose, you’d have better things to do than work.  Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved.  Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed?  This may be less obvious when you are sweeping the floor.  Can’t you go on sweeping even when there is not a speck of dust left?  Well, you can go on making sweeping movements with your broom, but your purpose was accomplished, and so the work, as work, is ended.  Sooner or later, someone is sure to ask you why you are playing around with that broom.  What was work with purpose has now become play.

In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity.  If you tell your friends that you find it very meaningful to dance around with your broom on a Friday night, they might raise their eyebrows, but they cannot seriously object.  Play needs no purpose.  That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful.  After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere.  We dance around and around.  A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished.  It has no purpose, strictly speaking.  It is the playful unfolding of a meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning.  Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life.  Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human life.

We need this kind of experience to correct our world view.  Too easily are we inclined to imagine that God created this world for a purpose.  We are so caught up in purpose that we would feel more comfortable if God shared our preoccupation with work.  But God plays.  The birds in a single tree are sufficient proof that God did not set out with a divine no-nonsense attitude to make a creature that would perfectly achieve the purpose of a bird.  What could that purpose be?  I wonder.  There are titmice, juncos, and chickadees; woodpeckers, gold finches, starlings, and crows.  The only bird God never created is the no-nonsense bird.  As we open our eyes and hearts to God’s creation, we quickly perceive that God is a playful God, a God of leisure.

But let us be careful not to fall into opposing leisure and work.  Leisure is the balance of work and play.  Leisure gives full measure to both.  Yet even this could be misunderstood.  Too quickly someone might say, “Yes, when I play, I have a good time; and when I work, let’s get it over with; a perfect balance, isn’t it?”  Not all that perfect, it seems to me.  Should I not also have a good time while I’m working?  People who spend their working hours with no mind for anything but purpose are unlikely to begin playing when their free time finally comes.  Either they will collapse and slump in a chair with a glass in their hand, for that kind of work wears one out completely.  Or they will be so set in the groove of mere purpose that they will continue to work.  Unable to play, they will either work overtime, or if they pick up their golf clubs or tennis racquets, they will give themselves a workout.  We are simply unable to play playfully unless we learn to work playfully.

To work playfully!  Doesn’t that sound almost frivolous, given the attitude toward work that was drilled into many of us?  Working playfully sounds to us like fiddling around.  And yet the most efficient work is work done leisurely.  And working leisurely means putting into our work what is most typical of play, namely the emphasis on meaning.  Leisure gives meaning to purpose, makes room for meaning in the midst of purposeful activity.  The Chinese character for leisure is made up of two elements that by themselves mean open space and sunshine: the attitude of leisure creates an opening to let the sun shine in.  One late morning I saw a shaft of sunlight fall at a steep angle into the man-made canyon of Wall Street and understood what that ancient Chinese ideogram for leisure could mean for busy New Yorkers.

When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it.  Then we will not be so eager to get it over with.  If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime.  Meaningless work is a form of killing time.  But leisure makes time come alive.  The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing.  A timely warning.  Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.

The heart is a leisurely muscle.  It differs from all other muscles.  How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop?  But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live.  It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat.  Our physical heart works leisurely.  And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied.  Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.

Seen in this light, leisure is not a privilege but a virtue.  Leisure is not the privilege of a few who can afford to take time, but the virtue of all who are willing to give time to what takes time – to give as much time as a task rightly takes.  With this we have come full circle and are back at contemplation.  Only by looking up to the stars are we able to see the meaning of our purpose; only by putting our shoulder to the wheel are we able to translate the demands or our vision into action.  By calling this attitude leisure, we refer to its two poles as work and play.  When we refer to the same polarity in terms of action and vision, we speak of contemplation.  Call it contemplation or call it leisure, the heightened aliveness we mean springs from the creative tension between purpose and meaning.

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