My brother is one of the hardest-working, most generous people I know. During the rare moments when he is not working successfully at his job or volunteering his time to mentor youth, however, he can be a “waste of space.” While my family is together for a holiday, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask, “Has anyone seen Peter?” only to discover him later semi-comatose on the couch with the television blaring.
My brother is not alone. Americans can work extremely long hours and complain about how busy we are, and yet we still manage to watch, on average, nearly 20 hours of television a week. Perhaps it is exactly because our daily lives can be so stressful that we then seek rather passive forms of entertainment that do not require much thought or energy but also do not really refresh us.
With so many of our few non-working hours spent in front of a screen, what aren’t we doing?
In general, we are less likely to engage in more active, relational forms of leisure. The French spend nearly twice as much time eating and drinking as Americans, for example—and probably much less of that is done while alone at a desk or in a car.
Not only can spending less time in intentional leisure affect our happiness, but it can also affect our spiritual life because of how closely the two are related.
An oft-repeated phrase among people familiar with Jesuit or Ignatian spirituality is “finding God in all things.” Even with such an expansive vision, however, certain situations and places are privileged opportunities for encountering the living God, just as some forms of recreation are more rejuvenating than television or other forms of screen time.
I could find the glory of God while lying on my bed on a Sunday morning, though I’m much more likely to sleep —or engage in “horizontal meditation,” as one Jesuit I know called it—than to have any profound spiritual insights. Even if my mind frequently wanders at church, communal worship is far more likely to break through the barriers I put up that block my reception of that glory than an extra hour in bed.
Not much seems to be happening much of the time I’m in prayer. “God highs” are not so common in my life. They tend to occur, however, when I carve out time and space when I am not running around like a madman thinking of the next thing I need to do and when I am not plopped in front of a screen.
A farmer cannot force a seed to grow; she can, however, prepare the soil. We, too, can prepare the spiritual soil.
This includes time for prayer but also much more. It is no coincidence that the times when I am most impatient with others and spend less time smiling and laughing are usually the periods when I have not made time for beauty, hobbies that I enjoy and meaningful time with close friends.
On the other hand, being creative or spontaneously helpful to others tends to come when I have put myself in a good place by spending time with God and enjoying God’s grandeur all around me in a deliberate way.
I currently live on a seacoast, and perhaps because I’m trying to make up for decades of living in the Midwest, I try to get to the beach as much as possible. I have noticed how even an hour soaking up ocean breezes can clear my mind and help release the week’s stress. It is exactly because the beach is such a godsend that I am often shocked by how some of the men in my community can live so close to the ocean but go a year without setting foot on the shore.
Perhaps it’s not so different, however, than when I lived in a major city. Because I thought I could visit the wonders of the city at any time, I rarely did so. An eager tourist, however, would see more in a week than I did in a year. What I lacked was intentionality.
Similarly, I can’t count the number of times that instead of spending more time in prayer, picking up the phone to call a friend or learning to cook something new, I have checked sports scores yet again or wasted time doing something that did not really refresh me.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We don’t have to go far to soak up the beauty. We do, however, need to prepare the soil so that we can actually receive such grandeur.