June 7, 2023

The Working Catholic: Leisure by Bill Droel


I put away the clock and now I enjoy the time.

Saving Time: Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell (Random House, 2023) is not a time management book.  It is not about leaning in or about making the most of the weekend. It is not about the work-life balance. It is not a how to or a self-help book. Saving Time is part memoir, part philosophy and a smaller part travelogue with photos.

Ever since Eve and Adam were evicted from the garden, things had to get done. But humankind has not always and everywhere been on the clock. A mercantile economy and then capitalism brought us the clock. According to capitalism busyness equals goodness. (This notion is sometimes called the Protestant ethic.) To do reasonably well requires sustained effort. To be stuck in place implies laziness. The upwardly mobile and those who struggle to make ends meet both judge their lives in individualistic terms. Both the successful and the struggling tend to overlook our culture’s controlling circumstances. Both the secure and the precarious are stressed by the clock. The wealthy go to a therapist to deal with their stress. For them, coping often means putting in more work. The working-poor can deal with clock stress by forming a union, as is happening in this Covid-19 era. However, an unhealthy escape from stress is resentment, sometimes in movements like MAGA.

Odell is aware that liberation from clock slavery requires more than a change in attitude. Thus her book deals with economic class, race relations and particularly with culture. In that regard Odell draws upon Josef Pieper (1904-1997) and his classic book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture (Faber & Faber, 1952). Proper leisure, says Pieper, is not the same as recharging one’s battery for more work. Nor is leisure an experience to be consumed.

True leisure, Pieper continues, is an emotional/spiritual posture for its own sake, not as refreshment for other types of work. Leisure is a vertical relationship, not a chronological segment like Saturday or Friday evening. Leisure is wonder and joy. It is appreciating our connection to transcendence.

Unfortunately, leisure in our current culture is commercialized. It is often as much work as one’s job. Waiting for the Weekend (Viking, 1991) by Witold Rybczynski details how people pervert genuine leisure by spending Saturday “working on their backhand” or “putting in the work” to improve their putting or “working in the garden.”

It is possible for a person to cultivate a true leisurely disposition. But not much changes without a new culture. Christianity was once a major cultural force—admittedly for the bad at times, but often as an alternative to the daily grind. Christianity, like Judaism, used to insist on an alternative Sabbath—no labor, minimal commerce, some worship, singing, reading and family outings. Young adults today, understandably, are not much attracted to main line Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity. Even evangelical Christianity has lower communitarian appeal to young adults. With important exceptions, it is often an individualistic identifier with low content. As a cultural force, evangelical Christianity is overly connected with negative politics.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) has been called “the last Christian.” Before the 13th century few people needed any time-keeping device other than direct observation of the sun and moon. But when the mercantile economy emerged in Europe, people wanted to keep appointments. So a clock tower was installed in public squares. St. Francis turned his back to those clocks to remind people that a life fixated on clocks (be they now an app on one’s mobile device) is not ultimately satisfying. St. Francis had no tight schedule. He rebelled as best as he could against specific programs, utilitarian transactions, measurable goals and the like. St. Francis had no office, no work-life balance. In a sense, St. Francis did nothing. He communicated by way of gestures. And for some reason his vertical posture was attractive to young adults. His movement was a counter-cultural force.

Is it possible for today’s young adults to create a less frantic life in imitation of St. Francis? Not unless the goal is for young adults to quit their jobs, abandon their mobile devices, roam about begging and maybe repairing a building here or there–all the while dressed in a long hooded jacket. Wait. Young adults are already garbed in hoodies. Perhaps the St. Francis spirit is percolating from within.


Droel is editor for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad