FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009

Playing Right: The Need for Holy Leisure

December 10, 2008                                            Volume 1 Issue 6
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Peggy Hothem

A student I didn't know well recently stopped by my office. No more than three minutes into our conversation, tears welled up in her eyes. Though she was a senior who had been extremely successful in her classes and involvement on campus, she told me she was exhausted from the overload of commitments in her life. She was burning out. At age 21.

There's little question-and a lot of proof-that our society is moving at a pace like never before. The organization Take Back Your Time ( has made the case that Americans put in the longest working hours among industrialized nations, spending 2,000 hours of work per year on the job. This factors out to be nine more weeks of paid employment than the average European worker. One in three U.S. employees experienced feeling overworked as a chronic condition and two-thirds of those surveyed acknowledged being in a constant state of stress. And if college seniors are already feeling the weariness of over-committed lives, what will that mean for them as future leaders?

Obviously, this accelerated pace, along with an increased perception that we don't have enough hours in the day, can be translated into decreased family time, lack of attention to children or spouses, and the demise of community involvement. But what could have a more damaging effect is something that concerns me most: are we too tired and too busy for moral reflection? Are we avoiding the most important questions of life because we don't make the time to stop and consider them?

It's an especially important question as we enter the Christmas season, which ironically can feel not like the most wonderful time of the year but the most hectic. Instead of holy leisure, we move frantically between shopping and obligatory holiday events. And yet, especially for faith-based communities, I worry about how much we miss of the season when we rush through it.

Which is why holy leisure might be just the gift we need to ask for during this time of the year (and of course, each year to come). The connection between leisure, spirituality, and moral action is not necessarily a new one. But their combined potential as a transforming power in our society could indeed be a saving grace.

What do I mean by holy leisure? It emphasizes the sacredness of a slow reflective attitude and experience. It goes beyond mere amusement, diversion, entertainment, or a slothful passing of time to create the soil for contemplation. It's a detachment from the inner compulsion to be constantly busy. In a world of doing and more doing, holy leisure gives space for our imaginations and curiosities, transforming ordinary insight into a sense of wonder and delight. It makes room in one's life to listen more and meditate on what's important.

By encouraging leisure not as mere diversion or another busy activity, but as the concept of a holy pause, we're inviting others to a restorative peace, to step back from the fast pace of modern life. When we rest in this still place, we are more likely to hear the questions we should be asking of ourselves, as well as the still, quiet voice of God.

But how do we do this? How do we challenge the frantic pace of our over-worked society? Not with more meetings or gadgets but with intentional times of quiet. With sabbatical lifestyles that encourage creative expression and genuine hospitality.

One way might be to heed the early church fathers who desired holy leisure as a perspective toward life. They approached the beginning of each day with a prayer from the psalms: "Oh, that today, you would listen to His voice."

Or as author Joan Chittister describes it: "holy leisure is to bring a balance of being . . . back into lives gone askew, and to give people time to live a thoughtful, a contemplative, as well as a productive life."

The senior who stopped by my office? She sought me out because she had heard I talked a lot about this idea of holy leisure. She wanted help slowing down. It was a first step, but a step nonetheless, not toward another form of distraction or escapism. But toward a re-formed perspective of leisure, one that slows down long enough to listen. One that nurtures a receptive state of being in which the fullness of God's delight can give us health, healing, and hope.

From what I can tell, her generation, like all of us, could use a lot more of each.

Dr. Peggy Hothem is professor of recreation and leisure studies. She lives in Hamilton, MA, with her sons and is an expert in fun.


Copyright 2008 by Peggy Hothem @ Gordon College in Wenham, MA, U.S.A. Though forwarding of this e-column is permitted (and encouraged) NO part of this may be reprinted or reproduced without prior written consent from the  editor of Faith + Ideas =
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