No other author has so immediately affected my perspective on work as Josef Pieper. In my mind, work was separate from the rest of life. Working hours have always been a discrete part of my day since I took my first job as a teenager. Maybe this division is inherent to American culture and how I grew up, but in Pieper’s mind, work is part of our response to the gift of life.

Though published decades ago, German philosopher Josef Pieper’s commentaries on work, leisure, and festivity bring to light two deficits within our culture today—true community relationship and conscious introspection. His works, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948) and In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (1965), posit not a solution to our culture’s dis-perspective, but a call to return to a meaningful and fruitful life. If we can’t recognize leisure, then our culture is endangered.

But leisure is a tricky word in the twenty-first century. Is it welcoming visitors at our leisure? Is it reclining on a couch in a leisure suit? Is it being free from work demands? Is it the opposite of work? What kind of leisure is this?

Leisure Is For Work

A weekend away, a vacation, a sick day when we’re not sick—these may be breaks from work but they are not leisure. These pauses or attempts to escape the drudgery of work may not be restful. Pieper describes this view of leisure-as-punctuation as a lack of genuine wealth, being “poor in spirit” without even realizing it. And this mindset can only be repaired by an act of worship that becomes “a store of real wealth that cannot be consumed by the workaday world.” Every day, in fact, can be a feast day, a concept I had never considered before reading Pieper. With true leisure, the worker is not only refreshed from work but for work.

I am convinced that the busyness of our age detracts from our ability to see the worthy work we do, to see ourselves as whole persons. Filling our days does not necessarily lead to fulfillment. When asked what we do, we often respond with a recital of how busy we are, how many urgent tasks we accomplish. This state of mind resonates with Pieper’s perspective that we might be spiritually poor.

There is no leisure that can provide an antidote to such busyness. Pausing from such activity won’t relieve the stress-filled worker. Hence leisure is not the ease of seeking distractions as soon as work is done. It is not restoring our working powers. Leisure begins, rather, from a different view of work. Business psychologist and Yale researcher Amy Wrzesniewski references this broader understanding of work as a life’s vocation in studies like “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work” (1997). When people see their work as calling, a broader perspective, they feel enthusiastic, purposeful, and willing to work harder and longer to make a contribution.

Pieper would ask us to see all of our endeavors with this wide view so that we are not wholly absorbed in our work or by our work. A conscious practice, leisure can produce a resting place within our souls so that we can complete our work at a more excellent level. Without it, we succumb to spiritual ills such as stress, weariness, depression, or even breakdowns. Without leisure, our inner life can fall into disrepair. As Christians, we would then be like anyone else in society, frantically going through the motions with little sense of the purpose our activity might serve. It makes sense, then, that Pieper terms Christianity an “underlying assumption” throughout his approach.

Leisure and Festivity

Leisure is a receptive mental attitude characterized by the soul’s ability to see itself in its place in creation, in its eternal potential and the wholeness of what God created. It is not selfish introspection. It is a conscious awareness instinctively accompanied by praise. Without praise, “leisure becomes laziness.” With praise, its fruit is restorative to the worker just like sleep.

Although they bear separate identities, leisure and festivity share the same roots, for they each require divine worship and praise. “Only in this festival time can leisure unfold and come to fruition,” Pieper writes. They are mutually dependent. Festivity is greater than leisure because it involves the community of mankind, celebrating with a “special spice . . . an expectant alertness,” all of which produces joy as we affirm the goodness of the world and the goodness of its Creator. Festivity does not just contrast to work but also identifies with play, joy, and a meaningful life.

This perspective leads to appreciating festivity, for according to Pieper, the substance of festivity is affirmation. “To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” Affirmation or universal assent can be a life view or perspective; it’s being spiritually aware; it’s being capable of joy, not naysaying. Unfortunately, cultural ignorance, even laziness, has resulted in a dumbing down of festivity. If the worker becomes unaware of festivity’s purpose, then festivity turns into mere diversion, another calendar event to schedule.

That is why some workers fail to enjoy either leisure or festivity. If they are ignorant, they cannot know either. Some may assume that attending a festival or enjoying themselves is the same as festivity, but this goes back to Pieper’s insistence that that is but a pause in work. Leisure and festivity require a holistic consciousness of their purpose. Pieper directly addresses this inward capability in his final chapter of Leisure: The Basis of Culture, where “relaxation, effortlessness, and superiority of ‘active leisure’’’ come together as the foundation for worship.

Though he maintains this idea is not limited to the Christian realm and that “festivity can freely vent itself in all its possible forms . . . worldly or spiritual,” for Pieper, the worker must know God and the joy of being created. Not every man acknowledges a spiritual reality, and not every man will agree with Pieper’s theology. This also introduces an existential element where “the true existence of man takes place in both spheres.” There are worldly festivals that a worker can take part in, and he may even grasp a glimpse of eternal perspective, stepping outside of himself for a space of time.

Pieper, however, makes clear that “Christian worship sees itself as an act of affirmation that expresses itself in praise, glorification, thanksgiving for the whole of reality and existence.” In spite of this insistence, his very comments and line of thinking do augment any reader’s view of Christianity. How can we not respond to the truth of knowing and experiencing God when Pieper exclaims, “The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship”?

In his commentaries, Pieper is not trying to pose a call to action; rather, he is hoping to make people think and consider the way they see, live, and embrace life. Our perspective and manner of looking at life, and not just living through it, are key. We can begin the joy of active leisure by acknowledging that our lives are a gift and that the ability to receive this truth and its correlating gift of perspective is outside of ourselves. It is the same gift Paul references in Ephesians 2, a gift given by grace, not of ourselves.

Local Culture
Local Culture
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