Holy leisure vs. unholy sloth

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul." Thus begins Chapter 48 of the Rule of St. Benedict, in which he lays out a schedule balancing manual and intellectual labor. Yes, we think with a private groan, we should keep busy. We should be productive! But wait -- that same schedule, that same paragraph in the Rule, also has time for a daily nap! St. Benedict's monastery was in Italy, after all. And then, there's my favorite commandment, the one about resting on the Sabbath. Idleness is the enemy of the soul, but rest is holy, and it is mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy.

America is a workaholic country. At every economic level, we suck at rest and relaxation. But before you tell me that you don't have time to rest, or before you accuse me of blind privilege, be honest: how much time do you spend watching TV/YouTube/Netflix (etc.)? How much time do you spend playing solitaire or Candy Crush (etc.)? It's a paradox: most Americans spend hours every day goofing off on their phones or other screens. Isn't that rest? Sure, probably some of it is -- but mostly, for most of us, I think it's sloth. I think most of us spend way too much time in idleness and way too little time in leisure

Here is a simple litmus test for distinguishing between the kind of down time that is restorative and the kind that is "the enemy of the soul." That is: how does it leave you feeling?  Rest should leave you feeling refreshed, restored, relaxed, ready to start again. Does binge-watching Real Housewives leave you feeling happy and peaceful and energetic? Does hours of Candy Crush make your stress melt away? Or does it make you feel even more tired, stressed, unenthusiastic, irritable, trapped?  

What is rest for me might be sloth for you, and vice versa. What is restful at one time might be slothful at another time. So if your current ways of relaxing aren't actually making you feel more full of life, try something new! Instead of playing phone games, try playing actual card or board games with your family members. Take a walk or a bike ride, or a meandering drive in the country -- go ahead and get lost, GPS will get you back home. Take a bubble bath. Turn on your happy music and dance around the living room, sing at the top of your lungs, dust off that old air guitar. Or turn on some mood music and try a gentle yoga routine. 

Throw a ball or a frisbee with your kid, or throw a stick for your dog to fetch, or play with your cat with a piece of string. Read a novel. Read out loud to someone, even by phone to a friend or relative who's feeling isolated and lonely. Play make-believe with your kids. Grab one of those grown-up coloring books and a pack of colored pencils. 

Instead of just passively watching TV, write some fan-fic (or if writing it feels too much like homework, just daydream it). I mean, pick one of your favorite characters and dream up a back story for them, or spin off a story featuring some minor character. Or daydream about how you would live if money were no object: where in the world, in what kind of home, city or beachfront or dude ranch, who would live with or around you, how would you spend your time? 

Take a nap. Watch birds. Find a window where you can sit and watch the sky change colors at sunrise or sunset. Listen to instrumental music with your eyes closed and visualize scenes, colors, moving patterns to go along with the sound (remember the Disney movie Fantasia?). Do some calisthenics. Does calisthenics not sound like "rest"? Well, not if you have a physically tiring job, but if you are working at a computer all day a dozen jumping jacks might be just the thing to renew your energy.

Try meditating. There are a lot of ways to meditate, and I am not qualified to teach any of them. I usually just meditate on the peaceful view out my window. I used to get exasperated with my cat, who always seemed to want attention as soon as I settled down to meditate. Now I've learned: if she gets in my face, I can meditate on petting the cat. It works just fine, and our relationship has improved. The classic monastic meditation is lectio divina, but for me, getting away from my wordy mind and into my wordless senses is especially restorative.

And here's another thing I've found valuable: put relaxation on the schedule! There is always a list of things I "should" be getting done. I am never all caught up, and never will be. But if I schedule down time, with a start and an end time, then goofing off becomes "what I'm supposed to be doing right now." I can relax into it, and really reap the spiritual, physical, and mental benefits of real rest. If I set an alarm or timer, having a pre-determined schedule also allows me to forget about the clock and be fully engaged (or disengaged) during the time set aside for resting.

It could be one full day a week (like the Sabbath), an hour every day after lunch (Benedict's siesta), 5 minutes every hour, or whatever works. Half an hour of genuine leisure is worth more than half a day of fake relaxation, so the soul-sucking fake kind starts to lose its attraction. 

So give yourself a break! You do deserve it. But make it count. Abandon sloth, and embrace rest instead.


Blessings to you all, and a happy new year.

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