Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Daily Manual Work, Part 2

Otiositas inimica est animae [RB 48: 1]
Idleness is the enemy of the soul.

Philosopher Josef Pieper's most famous work, 'Leisure, the Basis of Culture' was required reading when I attended the U of Chicago many years ago. In it, he draws a distinction between leisure and idleness. For Pieper, leisure is necessary for right action. In this he is proposing anew an idea as old as Aristotle. In my translation, I am reading this distinction back into Latin a bit. Romans were not overly fond of the idea of leisure during the golden and silver eras of literature. A pragmatic people, they tended to associate productive leisure with lazy idleness. Thus, Seneca found it necessary to defend the leisured life in his De otio. Monks have typically been advocates of otium divinum, the divine leisure that affords time for reading and prayer. Sunday, the Lord's Day, takes over the idea of rest and leisure from the Sabbath. Monks deliberately withdraw from worldly business, or 'negotiation' (nec-otium non-leisure), to be free for the things of God.

St. Benedict begins this chapter, however, with the word otiositas, a nominalization of the adjective otiosus, at rest, idle, unemployed. Perhaps we could say that 'unemployment is the enemy of the soul'. In any case, there is a sense in this word of idleness or laziness, a preference not to have to work. It is, as we say, the Devil's workshop. Not every monk is good at capitalizing on genuine otium. It can quickly degenerate into a space for the free play of all kinds of temptations: wandering outside the monastery, surfing the net, talking to others, etc. St. Benedict anticipates that leisure will stretch some monks even when offered only on Sunday. "If anyone is so remiss and indolent that he is unwilling or unable to read or study, he is to be given some work so as not to be idle (vacet)." [RB 48: 23]

How do we make use of our downtime? Do we compulsively fill it with 'make work' so as not to have to encounter ourselves or God? Do we systematically exclude it from our schedules? Does this harm our prayer? On the other hand, do we waste time on television, videos, internet, magazines, gossip and so forth? We will see throughout this chapter that a good, balanced lifestyle, with alternating times of prayer, work and leisure is part of St. Benedict's genius.

“Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”
--Josef Pieper

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