Isn’t it surprising that monks could have something to teach busy modern people about how to live their busy modern lives well? But it’s true. The timeless truths about human nature that have guided monk’s lives throughout the centuries hold lessons for busy 21st century leaders too. Are you ready to hear one of them? Here’s the monks’ secret of work: It’s all about leisure.

The Secret of Work and Leisure

Work comes from leisure. Work is an expenditure of energy and, to be effective, it needs to come from a resilient source. That source is found in leisure. Leisure is like a stream that flows into the river of work. Without its constant inflow of newness, work dries up and becomes exhausted. Leisure, on the other hand, breathes currents of new strength into the flow of work, fortifying it to run its course with more rigor.

Work and leisure work smoothly together, poorly apart. St. Thomas Aquinas warns that the “remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason’s study. … man’s mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.” Are we cultivating leisure— the inner source that slackens the tension, the very inner source of our work? Or are we living under an ever-increasing tension that threatens to snap? Let’s explore what the union of work and leisure looks like in the life of a monk or a lay person.

Monkish Leisure

While the famous Benedictine rule is ora et labora, pray and work, monks also make sure to include leisure in their life, offering us hints for how to do the same. Here are a couple of the ways that monks cultivate leisure:

Being Intentional about Nature and Diet

First, monks have contact with nature and strive to eat a good diet, moderating sensual stimulation so they do not become overstimulated. Obesity is relatively rare in Trappist monasteries and, according to their website, if you tried to guess the ages of the monks, you’d often guess much too low.

Growing and eating local vegetables, baking bread, making chocolate or homemade granola— monks and nuns often take pleasure in these goods! And yet, fasting and following the restrictions of the liturgical year as well as their particular order help monks avoid excesses.

Even in one of the strictest and most silent orders, the Carthusians, recreation holds an important place. Recreation times of speaking and being in nature together allow the Brothers to develop and preserve mutual affection, as well as get healthy exercise and refreshment from the outdoors.

Spending Time Loving

Monks also spend time loving, which plays into leisure. In quiet solitude as well as in times of communal prayer, monks invite the love of the Trinity into their hearts. By spending time each day in direct communion with their “why?”—the love of God— they ready themselves to be productive.

Josef Pieper describes the receptivity that leisure entails, which is precisely the receptivity that monks cultivate. “Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in, reality,” Pieper says, “an openness of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of ‘mental labor’ can ever achieve.” Leisure makes for better work— That’s the secret of work!

Holy Leisure

What monks focus on cultivating could be described as “holy leisure.” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton offers an extraordinary description of what this holy leisure can look like when she describes a time she spent in nature and prayer. She writes:

I set off into the woods and soon found an outlet in a meadow; and a chestnut tree with rich moss underneath and a warm sun overhead. Here, then, was a sweet bed. The air still, a clear blue vault above — the numberless sounds of spring melody and joy filled the air — and my heart was made to be as innocent as a human heart could be, filled with an enthusiastic love for God and admiration of His works. … God was my father, my all. I prayed, sang hymns, cried, laughed and talked to myself about how far He could place me above my sorrow. Then I laid still to enjoy the heavenly peace that came over my soul; and I am sure, in the two hours so enjoyed, grew ten years in the spiritual life.

Leisure has a lot to do with what we do, yes, but it is also essentially about a spirit, a perspective on living and on whose hands ultimately guide our lives— God’s or our own.

Lay Leisure

Without becoming a monk, how can you take the secret of the monks to heart and cultivate leisure in your own life?

Productivity Isn’t King

First, to begin nurturing leisure in your life, let yourself celebrate your love and relationships. Schedule times for fun, if you must. Breaking out of the mindset that productivity is king can be hard, but consider what Josef Pieper points out: Eternity will not be about industrialism, it will be about praise. If we hope to be able to participate in eternal praise, we should start practicing it now! Leisure helps us learn how to relinquish control of work and offer up “wasting time” to God.

Pray Every Day

Second, to cultivate a spirit of leisure, pray every day. Set aside time for it. Recall the monk’s example of loving, of receptivity, and imitate this. Make time for prayer every day, but especially on Sundays! Pope Benedict XVI beautifully describes:

Leisure time is something good and necessary, especially amid the mad rush of the modern world; each of us knows this. Yet if leisure time lacks an inner focus, an overall sense of direction, then ultimately it becomes wasted time that neither strengthens nor builds us up. Leisure time requires a focus – the encounter with him who is our origin and goal. My great predecessor in the see of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Faulhaber, once put it like this: Give the soul its Sunday, give Sunday its soul.

Make Room for Art

Third, if you want to foster leisure in your life, where is art and beauty in your world? The beautiful has a powerful way of refreshing the heart and soul. Turn to it for leisure.

The beautiful has many forms, so it may take a bit of experimenting to find which one best aligns with your personality. Do you experience beauty most strongly through film, poetry, or writing? Photography, painting, or woodworking? Some other way?

Be Intentional about Nature and Nourishment

Fourth, nature can be one of the best environments for cultivating leisure. Where is your contact with nature? How is your diet? St. Paul of the Cross recommends:

Let everything in creation draw you to God. Refresh your mind with some innocent recreation and needful rest, if it were only to saunter through the garden or the fields, listening to the sermon preached by the flowers, the trees, the meadows, the sun, the sky, and the whole universe.

Taking Leisure Seriously

Precisely because of how the human person shrivels without it, the monks realized leisure’s importance in their lives. That’s their secret of work. We must have the freedom of letting go—not in forced fun or irresponsible recklessness—but in a sense of childlike wonder, freedom, and adventure.

Work and leisure complement each other; the monks have always known this. Let’s learn from their wisdom, and learn to make ample time for leisure, granting our bodies and souls the necessary rest to love all the more.