Reading with leisure means reading is not about me; it’s about giving my faculties over to the contemplation of a work that’s worthy in its own right…
Early in January, several of us on the faculty of Wyoming Catholic College held a one-day seminar about leisure and hope at the Shrine of our Lady of Good Help near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Of course we drew upon Josef Pieper’s great short work Leisure, the Basis of Culture, but despite the lucidity of his writing, what Pieper means by leisure is hard to grasp for most of us. It’s not “time off” or entertainment. Leisure is more a state of soul than something we do, and if we are not in that state of soul already, it’s hard to imagine it accurately. We hear the word, we want to “have” leisure, but it’s very rare that we seem to experience the phenomenon itself.
Leisure is not something we have or possess. Pieper says that leisure is “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God.” If we experience this affirmation, in other words, it means that we are not engaged in anxiety-ridden self-scrutiny or criticism of what’s obviously wrong with the world. Leisure, then, can at first seem to mean a premature, almost irresponsible, cheerfulness like the one Voltaire mocks so relentlessly in Candide. Do we have to convince ourselves that all is well to have leisure?
I think one way to understand what leisure is, especially in the context of Wyoming Catholic College, is to consider what the act of reading well entails. Contrast the kind of reading most of us do most of the time: We click through headlines on the Internet, skimming a few sentences here and there: bans, bombings, border disputes. We rapidly read this book or article in order to be up to date on that issue for some purpose or other, and at every moment, like Marvell’s speaker in “To His Coy Mistress,” we feel “Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” At no point do we simply allow ourselves to dwell with a text intelligently but self-forgetfully, outside the anxiety of time.
The other night I started reading a Shakespeare play that somehow I had never read, King John. The plot concerns this brother of Richard the Lion-Hearted, son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose reign in England is challenged by his French relatives. What would it mean for me to read it with leisure? It would mean not so much “taking time out of my busy day” to read it as letting the experience of reading it occupy what time it will: nothing else more important, nothing that has to be done right now or in the next hour. I can follow the exchanges and decisions of the characters, think about the figurative language, imagine how a speech might be acted, compare one passage to an earlier one, and contrast a character in this play to similar ones in King Lear or Much Ado About Nothing. I can question the text and find a great mind answering me. I’m not driven in reading by the anticipation of doing something with it or writing something about it.
In short, I’m not trying to better myself with this reading except perhaps in rediscovering what leisure might be as a state of soul. This reading is not about me; it’s about giving my faculties over to the contemplation of a work that’s worthy in its own right. I read the greatest kind of book with the most intense attention I can bring to it but without the anxiety that I have to do something with it. It’s more about friendship with the text than about mastering it or using it for my own ends. The work is given, and I am given over to it in return.
I think that experiencing this givenness is what Pieper means by the “cheerful affirmation” of leisure. We should read Scripture with this Sabbath attention, not so much for immediate moral instruction as for that wonderful contemplation of God’s Word that we find in St. Augustine, St. Bernard, and other luminaries. Despite being pressed for time, our students should be reading the Great Books of our curriculum with this leisure. If we immerse ourselves in the whole nature of something to be known for its own sake, not for our sake in any narrow way, then it accommodates us to a larger mode of being and frees us from the constraints of self-hood, from obsessive and narrow concerns. That is what the liberal art allow and why they are truly freeing.