The activities we choose in our leisure time can make a difference in our spiritual life.
In most of our lives, there are obstacles to the Holy Spirit being able to act freely. Stressed by worries, concerned about our work, disturbed by the attitudes of this or that person, we are often “unavailable” to the Holy Spirit. Of course, God can still do with us as He wills, even when we aren’t paying much attention. But there are ways that we we can better dispose ourselves to the Holy Spirit and it begins with the right kind of rest.
Different ways to rest
It’s rare that we plan our leisure time with this in mind. Most of the time, we assume that we need to unwind to avoid burnout. And obviously, that’s important, but it’s not enough. For a Christian, rest should be intimately related with living in the Holy Spirit. If, as St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) used to say, the goal of a Christian life is for it to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the goal of rest is to render us more open to His action through us and in us.
There are different kinds of “rest” and it can be hard to know what may “hinder” the Holy Spirit, but we can recognize a tree by its fruits. If you’ve been out clubbing for three nights in a row and are going about your business like a zombie, maybe your way of unwinding is not good for you and not a way to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit.
A mode of relaxation is only suitable if it does not hinder the Holy Spirit, or if it favorably predisposes us to the Holy Spirit’s action.
Good advice from St. Thomas Aquinas
The great medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a wonderful treatise on unwinding. He does not use that word, but that’s exactly what he means when in the Summa Theologica he wonders about the remedies for pain and sadness. The principle for his reasoning is rather simple: “In the same way as the corporeal exhaustion disappears with corporeal rest, the spiritual exhaustion disappears with spiritual rest. Yet, the spiritual rest is pleasant. And the words and deeds in which we only seek spiritual pleasure are called amusement or recreation. Hence it is necessary to employ it from time to time, as a means to provide some rest to the soul.”
In what concerns stress being fundamentally related to the body, we can first examine things from this perspective. St. Thomas wisely explained why tears, baths, and sleep lighten the weight of sadness. The main idea being that unwinding goes hand in hand with distraction and exteriorization. He said that baths and sleep are remedies against sadness because they allow us to relax, helping us to prevent the bodily contraction engendered by pain.
Friendship and contemplation are good for the soul
This being said, what about the soul? What pleasures can be most spiritually relaxing? They are obviously those that touch the most on happiness – friendship and contemplation. What could be more pleasant and relaxing than feeling the appreciation of our friends and having them by our side? And what can make us even more unwound if we love wisdom and if the spiritual joy of contemplation springs from our sensitivity?
Contemplation is simply a spiritual way of looking at an object worthy of admiration (God, a person, a work of art, a landscape). However, first a simpler form of unwinding must be found – one involving entertainment and humor. The philosopher Aristotle even considered this a virtue.
It is up to each of us to find our own personal recipe for relaxation of body and soul.
Brother Thomas Joachim