Practicing intentional leisure


By Michael Rossmann


My brother is one of the hardest-working, most generous people that I know.  During the rare moments when he is not extremely successful at his job or volunteering his time by mentoring youth, however, he can be a waste of space.  While my family is together for a holiday, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask, “Has anyone seen Peter?” only later to discover him semi-comatose on the couch with the television blaring.
My brother is not alone.  Americans can work extremely long hours and complain about how busy we are, and yet we still manage to watch, on average, nearly twenty hours of television per week.  Perhaps it is exactly because our daily lives can be so stressful that we then seek rather passive forms of entertainment that do not require much thought or energy but that also do not really refresh us.
With so many of our few non-working hours spent in front of a screen, what aren’t we doing?
In general, we are less likely to engage in more active, relational forms of leisure.  The French spend nearly twice as much time eating and drinking than Americans, for example – and probably much less of that is while alone at a desk or in a car.
Not only can spending less time in intentional leisure affect our happiness, but it can also affect our spiritual life because of how closely they are related.
A oft-repeated phrase in Jesuit or Ignatian spirituality is “finding God in all things.”  Even with such an expansive vision, however, certain situations and places are privileged opportunities for encountering the living God, just as some forms of recreation are more rejuvenating than screen time.
I could find the glory of God while lying on my bed on a Sunday morning, though I’m much more likely to sleep – or engage in “horizontal meditation,” as one Jesuit I know called it – rather than have any profound spiritual insights.  Even if my mind frequently wanders at church, communal worship is far more likely to break through the barriers I put up than an extra hour in bed.
“God highs” are not so common in my life.  They tend to occur, however, when I carve out time and space when I am not running around like a madman thinking of the next thing I need to do and when I am not plopped in front of a screen.
A farmer cannot force a seed to grow; she can, however, prepare the soil.  We, too, can prepare the spiritual soil.
This includes time for prayer but also much more.  It’s no coincidence that the times when I am most impatient with others and spend less time smiling and laughing are usually the periods when I do not make time for beauty, hobbies that I love, and meaningful time with close friends.
On the other hand, being creative or spontaneously helpful to others tends to be the result of putting myself in a good place by spending time with God and enjoying God’s grandeur all around me in a deliberate way.
I currently live on a coast, and perhaps because I’m trying to make up for decades of living in the Midwest, I try to get to the beach as much as possible.  I have noticed how even an hour soaking up ocean breezes can clear my mind and help to release a week of stress.  It is exactly because the beach is such a godsend that I am often shocked by how some of the guys in my community can live so close to the ocean but go a year without stepping foot on the shore.
Perhaps it’s not so different, however, than when I lived in a major city and thought because I always could visit the wonders of the city that I often did not actually visit them.  An eager tourist, however, could see more in a week than I did in a year.  What I lacked was intentionality.
Similarly, I can’t count the number of times that instead of spending more time in prayer, picking up the phone to call a friend, or learning to cook something new, I have checked sports scores yet again or wasted time doing something that did not really refresh me.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously penned.  We don’t have to go far to soak up the beauty.  We do, however, need to prepare the soil so that we can actually receive such grandeur.
(Michael Rossmann, SJ is a Jesuit scholastic currently teaching at Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City.)
This article was originally published in America, April 1, 2013, and is reprinted with the permission of America Press, Inc.,

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