The other day I was listening to Dr. Ray Guarendi on EWTN Radio. A woman called his show to explain that her husband was leaving her and their two small children in order to go after other women. She had appealed to the husband to stay “for the sake of the children.” The man’s response absolutely floored me. “What good would that do?” he asked. “They’re young and have their lives ahead of them. But I’m in my forties. It’s time I got on with my life.” In this man’s mind, we have no higher obligation than to serve our pleasure. His kids had a lifetime left to do what they want, but he was tied down. His wife was seeking to stop him from doing what he wants. She was the one who was at fault, not him.
How do you even argue with a man like that? The man’s most serious fault was not simply sexual incontinence (although that is really bad). His greatest fault was refusal to deliberate about what is truly valuable. It did not even occur to him to question whether our pleasures are a sufficient end in themselves, or whether they exist in a larger context of meaning that we can accept or reject. This is what makes us moral agents. We alone among the animals can know the meaning of our acts and order our lives accordingly.
The truth is that our acts are objectively meaningful. They occur within a context of ends and purpose that we ourselves do not create. Food is pleasurable so that we will eat so that we can nourish our bodies so that we can acquire or maintain health and strength. It is possible to eat for pleasure alone. It is also possible to eat intentionally in a way that fosters health and strength. The latter is subjectively more meaningful because it brings our intentional acts in line with the objective meaning of the activity.
The same is true of our work, our play, our sexuality, our reason, and every facet of our being. In the case of this unfaithful husband, he refused to accept that erotic inclination has an intrinsic meaning that transcends sensual pleasure. It exists for the sake of family. Giving ourselves to that meaning is what makes marriage ennobling. We must fight against our concupiscence, and place erotic inclination at the service of familial love.
How do you cultivate this sensitivity to beauty, this love of the true and the good? One way is through the gift of holy leisure. Much of the time we are bored and restless and we seek to dull that angst through amusement or work. These are inherently good things and serve a purpose, but they are not ends in themselves. If we do not rise above mere amusement or work then we are either the slaves of our senses or but cogs in an economic machine. True leisure – the gift of Sabbath rest – is not a frenetic search for the latest amusement, but a (relatively) still and quiet determination to enter fully into the meaning of our lives.
Last Sunday I got my kids out of the house and took a hike in the woods. An hour into our walk, I was struck by the loveliness of the thing. We were there with each other and for each other in an environment of natural beauty. Worries about money, work, or health faded before the objective splendor of life, family, and the goodness of creation. It wasn’t high contemplation, but it was good. It is no substitute for prayer and the sacraments, but it was an intentional engagement with the meaning of life.
The Catechism tells us that we need this kind of holy leisure. It quotes St. Augustine: “The charity of truth seeks holy leisure.” “The institution of the Lord’s Day,” it adds, “helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.”
The kind of leisure I’m advocating is an antidote to mere amusement or distraction. Distraction, says von Hildebrand, is the antithesis of recollection. Similarly, Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns against “tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul.” True leisure, by contrast, “is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” (Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture)
Amusement should refresh us so we can work more efficiently. Work should to meet our material needs so that we have leisure. But Leisure (as opposed to mere amusement or pleasure) exists so that we can give ourselves to lives of meaning. Every so often we should give ourselves and our familes to such leisure, to nourish an awareness of beauty and the truly human good.