In sermons and spiritual books we are told a great deal about labor and how to sanctify it. We are told very little about leisure, perhaps because there is far less of it. But even in a busy person’s life, there are bound to be blank periods, and unless they are to remain blank periods, it is necessary that we should know what to do with them. Certainly leisure needs every bit as much sanctifying as does labor — possibly more.
What, then, should be the procedure regarding leisure? Must I use it all for God? The answer is: you must be ready to use it all for God. In fact, He will not ask you to spend all of your free time in prayer or on your knees doing the stations of the Cross. What God wants is your willingness, not your time. He is a jealous God, He tells us through His prophet, but I suspect that He is more jealous of our desires than of our leisure.
Once you desire to spend time in the way that God wants rather than in the way that you want, there should be no further difficulty. It is, however, a desire that has to be renewed and held up to the light from time to time, because we have a tendency in our characters to go back on every offer that we make. But however bad we are at abiding by it, the principle is clear: we should offer our leisure to God, and then let Him decide how it is to be spent.
Be assured that if you offer your freedom to God — whether it is a question of time or affection or place or anything else — He will take it. He will take it, and you will no longer be free in the same way. But He will give you a far greater liberty instead. You will be free with the liberty of the children of God. But to attain this, you will have to make quite sure that you are genuinely offering.
Now apply what has been said to the question of what to do with free time. Having made your oblation, you sit back and wait for the manifestation of God’s will. He will not keep you waiting long: either you will feel an attraction for this or that form of service, or, whether you are attracted to it or not, a form of service will be exacted from you.
Thus, for example, you may discover a spiritual book — it may be The Cloud of Unknowing or Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation — and you will want to spend every moment of your precious new-found leisure studying the doctrine of it and getting on with the practice. This will be the way God accepts your offer: you will find yourself longing to give Him more of your time; it will be no burden whatever.
What is said here about the attraction to spiritual reading and the consequent pursuit of the interior life goes also for corresponding attractions to works of charity. For instance, you may long to be good to people all day long instead of wanting to spend your leisure watching films or lying down with a novel and a radio. The very fact that you are answering a call from God to do this will compensate for the incidental irritations that come along on account of it. You know that you are losing nothing. If you look wistfully at your evaporating leisure, at least you have no regrets in the will.
Leisure of some sort, however, is necessary to the interior life; it is necessary to the active life, as well as to the contemplative and mixed. You cannot be on the go the whole day long and the whole year round. In order to pray, to help, to work, and even to suffer, you have to be able to breathe.
A soul who does without leisure in life is like one who deprives himself, or is deprived, of pleasure. The tension becomes too great for recollection; charity becomes too forced for geniality, and even ultimately for generosity. It is a humiliating fact that without laughter most of us cannot take life seriously. (Without laughter we can be solemn, but this is quite another matter.) In the same way, without a certain mental spaciousness we cannot pray. It is the curious situation of having to relax our minds in order to intensify our prayer. If we want to pray without distraction — real distraction, not just a few flitting images — we have to learn how to control the conflict against distraction.
To conclude: eliminate enjoyment, and you will ultimately eliminate work. Work cannot survive a completely joyless diet: it becomes either flat or fussy. In the same way, eliminate in your life the time in which you follow your spiritual attraction, and your prayer will either be slept through or else become such a strain on your nerves that you will not be able to keep it up.