In the first creation story told in the Book of Genesis, God’s spirit broods over the waters of chaos and speaks the universe into being, “Let there be light” — the first day of God’s creating work. Over a succession of five days, God continues creating — dry land, the dome of the heavens, winged birds, earthly creatures, and humankind — and blessing everything that God has brought into being, pronouncing it all “very good.”
Then comes the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” After much creative labor, God takes “a day off,” simply to enjoy the fruits of this work and delight in all that creativity. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Though enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Sabbath – a weekly day of rest – the rhythm of activity and leisure, creation and recreation, remains as countercultural in our present moment as it was in the world of our ancestors in faith. We live in a culture of doing, driven by a mindset that has accustomed many of us to deriving our sense of self from what we do, finding worth only in our work and its tangible gains. Small wonder then that, as a culture, we feel compelled to work almost constantly!
Yet relentless work distances us ever further, not only from the mystery we call ‘God’ — the One who rested on the seventh day — but also from the persons we are created to be, ever reflecting God’s image and likeness. In a chapter of our Rule of Life entitled “Rest and Recreation,” we recognize “the hallowing of rest and the keeping of sabbath” as “an essential element in our covenant with God.” Similarly, Chapter 29, on “Retreat” reminds of the “opportunity to experience the intimacy we have with God in our union with Christ,” as we rest in retreat, and allow “exercise and gentle recreative activities in solitude [to] help us be open to the Spirit.”
Lest, however, we turn taking leisure into yet another task, we do well to remember also Jesus’ parable of the good and trustworthy servant, who is commended, on the completion of much work, “Well done ... now enter into the joy of your master.” These words signal for me a mysterious truth: rest and joy are linked. They are complementary graces; they reveal to us the stream of divine love always running beneath the surface of our lives.
As we grow into who we are made to be, God stirs in us what I would call a vocation as “priests of leisure.” Leisure time can be as sacred as prayer: both invite us to pause and reflect on all the gifts we have received — and, even more importantly, the gift that we ourselves are. Resting from our labors as God did, we rejoice with God, who from the beginning has delighted in us.
Growing up on Nantucket Island, I had some very memorable encounters with God as I spent leisure time outdoors. On long solitary bike rides to the seashore, freshwater ponds, and saltwater marshes or walking on the autumn moors, simply gazing on the created beauty around me, I felt pervaded by a strong sense of peace, connectedness and gratitude. I came to recognize these re-creation times as acts of worship, complementary to the profound experience of liturgy in church.
Perhaps it was this rhythm that drew me to monastic life, for it still holds true for me today. In our community, we schedule annual times of vacation as well as retreat; and over the years, I’ve come to experience these two forms of leisure as occupying a single continuum. How often have I struggled to “work” my intentional time of retreat, only to find that the very gifts of reflection and connection I desired were graciously given to me during an itinerary-less vacation!
The title of Thomas Green, S.J.’s introduction to Ignatian retreats, A Vacation with the Lord, serves to remind me of the wisdom of Jesus’ promise in the Gospel according to Matthew, “Come to me…and I will give you rest and refresh your souls.” And I find it to be valid whether I’m headed to a retreat center or a vacation spot.
Our times of leisure need not be lengthy to be transformative. We can take up the “priesthood of leisure” during a week’s vacation, a weekly day of rest, or even an afternoon break. However long you have, risk appearing foolish and being playful with the time. As a culture, we are often as serious about recreation as we are about work. Playfulness puts us back in touch with our bodies and feeling selves, so that we’re not constantly analyzing with the mind, but simply experiencing in wonder. Play can restore in us the integrity of how God has made us —mind, body, and spirit.
The Book of Genesis preserves two folkloric creation stories, each illuminating the other’s vision of God. I find the second story pleasingly playful. In this rather anthropomorphic telling, God is portrayed as childlike, in the “cosmic sandbox,” forming humanity out the mud and breathing life into the “earth-being.” God created the universe to play in and companions for sharing the divine delight.
Whenever your life gives opportunity for leisure, dare to be spontaneous, even silly. Play a round of miniature golf and don’t mind if you lose. Take a vacation from analyzing and striving. Join in a raucous pillow fight! Literally or figuratively, work a lump of clay or take a handful of sand and make like God: breathe some life into it. And then, be sure to sit back and simply delight in all that you have done and all that you are — just as God does.
Br. Jonathan Maury