Two weeks ago, a group of scholars from around the world gathered in Notre Dame, Indiana for Holy Cross College’s Labor and Leisure Conference. Among the many present was scholar Joseph Zahn, who presented his paper, “The Status of Leisure in the Human Person: Whether Leisure is a Virtue?” With levity in his voice, Zahn began: “Writing a paper on leisure without leisure is a difficult, if not utterly futile, task.”
Set to begin his doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Dallas in the fall, Zahn already has presented three papers at various academic conferences. But his work on leisure may have been the most difficult, as he wrote it while working a full-time summer construction job. To say the least, he pursued the truth in true Thomistic fashion: conforming his intellectual thoughts on leisure to the reality of his work experience.
The conference aimed to address both labor and leisure, but Zahn’s was one of the nine presentations to focus predominantly on leisure, while the remaining 29 focused on labor. Almost more surprising was the fact that Zahn was possibly the only scholar to actually define the term leisure.
Drawing heavily from German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, Zahn said leisure has three interdependent meanings: “Leisure as the time away from work in meaningful activity; the act of leisure in withdrawing and resting from the world of work in body and spirit; and the disposition of leisure as an intellectual vision.”
Thankfully, he was not alone in getting to heart of leisure. Carolyn Woo, keynote speaker of the conference and one of Acton’s PovertyCure Voices, stepped into the ring to contend for the underdog as well.
In an unconventional and ever-so-casual manner, the former president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services and former Dean of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business presented 14 thought-provoking and incredibly wise questions regarding the role of leisure in our lives.
One of these questions was based on a study showing that in 2015, 658 million vacation days went unused in America for the year 2015. For Woo, it begged the question: is this trend of a refusal to rest for the sake of more work the 21st century equivalent to the Midas Touch?
Just as the mythological Greek character King Midas turned everything he touched to gold, what I’ve termed the Proletariat Touch is turning everything Americans touch into work, even allotted days for rest. Midas’ grasp after material wealth starved him to death because his food was turned into precious metal; so will our attempt to make the finite function of work our end-all-be-all starve us from the pursuit of our true end, which is rest in unity with God?
The fact is that God made us on the sixth day but made us for the seventh, the thesis of Scott Hahn’s lecture, “Creation and Image of God,” given at Acton University in June. It’s not that work is not necessary or unimportant, but that it is only a means to our final end, not the end in itself.
Woo picked up this thread in the final question of her keynote speech at the conference: “God does not need rest, but He made us to need rest. Why is that so? He wants us to know that we cannot sustain ourselves!”
Both the Midas Touch and the Proletariat Touch are driven by the exact opposite mentality behind Woo’s inquiry: humans can sustain ourselves and don’t need God, but just things. As Zahn noted in his paper, such a view is one of acedia, defined by Pieper as not being in harmony with oneself due to the denial of one’s own nature and of reality. Acedia, then, is a sin against leisure; it’s a refusal of the disposition to accept how God created man and to humbly rest in the knowledge that we cannot sustain ourselves.
It is precisely this tension between the Proletariat Touch and true leisure that Zahn spoke of in the opening of his paper. And even the American singer-songwriter Josh Garrel speaks to this tension in his song, “The Resistance:”
“My rest is a weapon against the oppression / Of man’s obsession to control things.”
The pursuit of true leisure in a culture without it is a daunting task, but it is crucial to preventing the inevitable death that comes with King Midas’ sin of acedia. With the wisdom of Woo, Hahn, Zahn, Pieper, and Garrels, we can come one step closer to the rehabilitation of leisure in our own lives today.
And be sure to register for the Aug. 10 Acton lecture titled, “The Hard Work of Leisure: Russell Kirk’s Wisdom on Leisure, Work and How Christians Can Best Impact Society,” with Seth Bartee, a Visiting Scholar at The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.
Protestant evangelicals are one of the largest and most influential groups in the United States. Evangelicals are known for participating in international adoptions, volunteering in local churches and a host of philanthropic organizations, and mostly for political activism. Despite all of these activities, evangelicals have not changed American culture. Seth Bartee will offer an explanation and explore how evangelicals think about work and missions. Building on the work of conservative historian Russell Kirk, Bartee will make provocative suggestions for ways in which evangelicals can change culture without making direct political overtures.
Photo credit: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat (1886). Source: Wikimedia Commons.