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The Purpose of Leisure

What is the purpose of our leisure? This question has been simmering in my mind since I first encountered the idea of schole several years ago. It’s a lovely concept, particularly appealing to us homeschool moms whose days are typically busy, demanding, and, if we are not careful, chaotic. Many of us are thus inspired to order our days around a “liturgy,” implementing periods of work and rest in the pattern of our weeks and years and sharing in a “feast” of good books, music, and art with our children, and all are good and noble pursuits. These are elements of education—and life—that I try to incorporate, however imperfectly, in our own home. Schole was precisely the educational concept I needed when I was first introduced to it several years ago. Our family was just coming out of an extremely difficult season, and rest—even leisure—was exactly what we needed.

What gives me pause in regards to leisure in education, however, is not so much the what and why, as the how. My first real dive into the concept of leisure was via Leisure, the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Taken as a whole, Pieper’s message centers around living in a state of humility and worship; leisure exists for no other purpose than for its own sake:

Leisure cannot be achieved at all when it is sought as a means to an end, even though that end be “the salvation of Western civilization.” Celebration of God in worship cannot be done unless it is done for its own sake. That most sublime form of affirmation of the world as a whole is the fountainhead of leisure.

According to Pieper, the preservation of Western culture, the passing on of a Christian paideia, establishing an atmosphere of rest and celebration in our schools (all variations on expressions of the schole concept) are for naught if we do it as a means to an end. The purpose of our leisure is not so much to achieve a state of doing, as it is to rest in a state of humility, worship, and pleasure in the presence of our Creator. It is the proper order of things:

You make known to me the path of life;
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

I cannot argue with Pieper (or the psalmist) about the purpose of leisure. The real trouble comes when we start trying to “implement” leisure. We make space in our schedules, we take our kids for nature walks, we sing the hymns, light the candles, recite the catechisms. And it is lovely. But those things can become their own idols too. Instead of doing them for their own sake, we find ourselves doing them to attain some kind of Instagram-worthy aesthetic, “warm fuzzies,” or—as Joshua Gibbs referenced in his recent article “Is Classical Education about Rest and Nurture?”—an idyllic scene out of Anne of Green Gables in which teacher and students feast on poetry outside in the sunshine. We run the risk of tossing around words like “schole” and “paideia” and “restful learning” just so that everybody knows we are still in the club. And when our homes or schools don’t measure up to that ideal, we think something must be wrong.

But here’s the thing about feasting: You can’t do it all the time. A feast is its own reward, but it can only be fully enjoyed after seasons of intense labor—maybe even fasting. All throughout Scripture we see God’s people moving through seasons of fasting and celebration, famine and feasting. On the one hand, of course, there is the sense of being in a “state of rest” even through the seasons of labor:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

On the other hand, the promise of rest for our souls does not mean that there is not work to be done. Resting for a time in preparation for work or as a time of celebration is very different from being in a prolonged state of stasis. In medical terminology, “stasis” is a stoppage or slowing of fluids such as blood or lymph fluid—clearly an unhealthy state. Or, to use a different metaphor, a peaceful spring-fed lake is a very different thing than a stagnant, mosquito-infested marsh. Even under its calm surface, the peaceful lake is being fed and renewed with clean, life-giving water.

What, then, are we to do about leisure? First, we need to consider the nature of our leisure. If our times of “rest” are merely a response to being overworked, we run the risk of turning our rest into a stagnant marsh. How many times are we tempted, at the end of a long, hectic day, to mindlessly scroll Facebook or binge on Netflix? We know that these are not the sorts of activities that restore our souls, and yet we do them anyway. When we make work our primary focus, we are less capable of engaging in active, spirit-refreshing leisure. Instead we stay up too late, numb our brains on an excess of pop culture, and eat too much junk food. Proper leisure engages the soul and mind instead of disconnecting us from it.

Second, we must remember that we will not enter into our full rest until the fulfillment of the Kingdom, when the church celebrates her marriage supper with the Bridegroom. Until then, we are all laborers in the harvest, bondservants of Christ, slaves to righteousness. But we have these blessed promises: The strength to do the work is not our own, we are given the mind of Christ to walk in wisdom, and grace is freely given without question and beyond measure. So to all you weary homeschool moms and dads, school teachers and students: fear not, walk in obedience, fight the good fight. Celebrate the beautiful things when you see them; grieve your losses in their time. Make room for leisure in your days, but do not neglect the good work set before you. Rest in the power of the Spirit today; trust in the promise of your final rest at the Wedding Feast tomorrow.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.

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