Today I’d like to share with you and have you share with me, at least mentally and spiritually, a little reflection on the topic of leisure. Leisure, leisure, leisure. So I’ll begin by wondering with us: what do we mean? What is leisure? Leisure, as I looked it upon the internet, generally refers to the freedom provided for us with the cessation of activities, especially burdens and duties and things we have to do and things that are required by life, such as sleep and eating. There is a chunk of time, often or not so often, that we have none of that to do. So it’s a quality of experience that involves some free choice: okay, I don’t have business, work, job-hunting, domestic chores, education, sleep, eating—so what am I going to do with that time? And that can be a definition for me to look at—how do I use my leisure?—of my deeper value system. Yeah, I’d say that.
I would say that there are two kinds of leisure: constructive leisure and destructive leisure. I would also say, from my perspective, there’s no such thing as neutral leisure. We’re either going up or we’re going down. I’d say that, and that’s pretty biblical. Either God or mammon, with every breath, with everything. Ideally, on the constructive side, leisure is time for me to re-create, recreation, for purposeful activity of one sort or other to help me gather strength. That can take many forms. Constructively, if I have some free time, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, I might decide to take a leisurely walk, alone or with somebody. Well, that I would call constructive leisure. I’m using my time to simply revive, become more aware and more prayerful and more loving and perhaps more productive. So leisure at its best is a time of restoration, rest, for restoration, to restore my soul.
Destructive leisure can be the use of my time that might be momentarily fun and satisfying but actually depletes my soul. I’ll use my own experience now as an example. Those of you who listen to my podcast know that I’m a recovering alcoholic. I had the question recently in an email from a person who listens to these podcasts: Tell me a bit about your story; how did you become an alcoholic? That plays into this topic of leisure.
When I was in graduate school, going on for my doctorate, I was a full-time student. But I also worked half-time for a psychiatrist; I was married, had one child at the time, Beth, who was an infant, and a wife who was a nurse who worked full-time. So my day, my week, was chock-full of, for lack of a better word, task and burden, drive to Hofstra, go to classes, do all the work involved in doing doctoral studies. Then, drive into Manhattan and work half-time for the psychiatrist and so on. So there was not much left over. I’d come home and be with my wife and daughter, and that was fun. That’s a leisure, certainly, wonderful leisure, constructive. But I often got home later, so we had a late supper. My wife had to go to bed early because she got up early.
So at 9:30 at night, Beth would be in bed, my wife would be in bed. I then had a choice: okay, it’s 9:30. What are you going to do with your time? For whatever reason, I did the same thing every evening: went to the television, turned on a sport. It didn’t matter if it was hockey or soccer or football or baseball or basketball. It could be a puck, a ball, anything that involved some form of sport, college or professional. I just wanted to veg out, with wine and some munchies—a big gallon of wine. I would sit on the couch and watch TV and drink wine. As time went along, began to drink more than a reasonable quantity of wine. It went down, it felt good, and life was okay that way. There was no complaint by me or my stomach or my wife.
As time went along, I began to wake up every morning with a headache and a little groggy. I might attribute it to the wine; I might not, but I certainly was not going to give up my evening wine, given the size of the workload I had during the day. So I began with total control of the wine; in time the wine got control of me, and I could not not-drink the wine. It was as simple as that. Then I graduated and got a fine job teaching in a university, tenure-track, but I kept drinking the wine at night. As life would have it, my body was able to consume more wine. So whatever resolutions I would begin to make didn’t really happen.
I recall then, after teaching a couple of years and living this way, that there was a department party, and I went alone—my wife stayed back with our daughter—and I said, “Okay, I’ll have a good time with my colleagues; I’ll have three glasses of wine.” I didn’t count, but I kind of had seven. At midnight, I was escorted out nicely by the department chair—it was at his house—and, standing at the door, the two of us, he put my coat on, and he said to me, “Al, you know, you’re a really good teacher. I don’t want to lose you. Please drive home carefully.” And then he opened the door. “Good night.” “Good night.” And I recall, as soon as I heard the door slam, I got very angry. He saw that I was drunk! And I certainly did not want my department chairman to see me drunk.
That was a wake-up call. “Al, you’re out of control here. You’re becoming an alcoholic.” So the point for now is that my use of leisure was destructive. Using my free time only got me drunk, and that of course had its own set of problems. The short end of that story is that in due time I went to AA and I haven’t had any inappropriate drink for 26 years. So that’s destructive leisure in my life.
Now, at age 80, my leisure takes the form of hobbies. I’ve grown up a little bit. I do have a lovely long workday, counsel at the seminary with students as I did today, and then I saw a seminarian’s wife and had dinner with a graduate and so on. My day is full of lovely people. And much creative time: I do much creative writing and many phone calls from people here and there and conference calls and committees and such. So my leisure time is usually evening.
What do I have as hobbies? One of my hobbies—you might find this strange—is making jigasw puzzles, but of a particular kind. There’s a software company online—I’ll say it: Collage.com—that you can send a photo to, and—how do I say?—choose how many pieces you want in your puzzle, and they will send you back a puzzle of the photo that you sent. Currently, I just finished doing an eight-by-ten—I don’t know what—520-piece puzzle, just the right size, of the picture of my wife’s face on the day of our marriage. Beautiful face, lovely, soft smile. It was such fun spending time with her, putting the puzzle together. That’s a whole, in itself, metaphor of life, because there are days that I really feel I’ll never get this thing done; all the pieces are the same size and they all look the same, and I just got frustrated. There were other days it went swimmingly: Oh, this piece fits this piece and interlocks over there.
I only allow myself a little bit of time—10, 15 minutes a day—to do the puzzle. I’m content if I get one or two pieces together. Some days I get many, some days… I don’t think there’s been a day that I’ve gotten no piece; maybe one piece, two pieces, so on. But the point is: when I leave work, I really look forward to going home and doing my puzzle for a while. That’s fun. It is just fun for me, and it is really fun to get the puzzle done. So I actually have framed that puzzle of my wife’s face in a little eight-by-ten frame, and I’m going to give it to my son as a Christmas present. So there’s a whole loving thing to it all.
I have other family and saints’ photographs I’ve sent now to collage.com and have them back. I have one 11-by-14 that I’ll do. I say to myself: if I never do it, that’s okay; I just want this to be constructive leisure. Whatever was the expenditure of energy, this is replenishing the energy, and that’s the point. That’s really what we’re interested in. We’re interested in life: renewing, replenishing life, which can be defined as energy. It is energetic, breath.
So we revive our energy different ways. Sleep revives it. We wake up more alert, more strong. Food gives us energy. Exercise gives us energy. So on the topic of constructive energy, I would like to refer to one of the  maxims of Fr. Thomas Hopko that are available on the internet. One of them says very clearly, number 21: Have a healthy, wholesome hobby. Oh, I think that’s so important. I know one man who taught here at the seminary who had a hobby of toy trains. One time he took me down to his basement, sort of a remote, secluded area there. He had a great big elaborate set-up of toy trains, multiple trains on multiple tracks and multiple switches that he enjoyed going to after a day’s work.
I’m saying all of this to all of us to say some people have leisure by using their hands: pottery or cooking or sewing or knitting or farming or gardening, whatever that might be. Some people have their leisure by using their brain; they just love to sit down and do crossword puzzles. Some people renew their energy by social interaction, going out to Starbucks with a friend or being with grandchildren or whatever form it takes. But it’s always constructively revitalizing.
But for now we simply know that the point of constructive leisure, the topic of this podcast, is to renew and refresh the soul in constructive ways as given by God that are healthy and wholesome, as Fr. Hopko says.
I would also want to add my own entertainment standards. I live by these standards; I try to, but I don’t impose them on others, certainly not my children or others. They know my standards, my standards for watching TV or going to a movie or even looking at magazines or newspapers. I simply will not view any sexual activity at all or any nudity at all, any female nudity at all. That’s my own way. My children, who are adults, will say to me, “Dad, I saw a movie that was really good. Even you can see it!” It’s like they know the movie passes my little standards. I just need to have that.
Destructive leisure is pleasant for a while. We can think of internet pornography addiction or some such really destructive use of hours of leisure time. It leaves the person less wholesome, less good. So that’s kind of what I wanted to say about leisure at this point. I wanted to reflect on it in Christ. Leisure of course, constructive leisure, can be prayer. I know that in my own case, as I have said, I meditate 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes at night. I live alone and love that. Sometimes, if I get a free slot in the afternoon, I will—in my office I have a little cot on the side of the office—I will go and simply lie down for 20 minutes with my eyes open and pray, as leisure. When I get up, I am pumped; I am ready to go again. Whatever it takes, whatever is given by the Lord, is the way to give back more to the Lord.