Geraniums are the hardiest of flowers around here. Aside from verbenas, roses, and a few bulbs, they are the only perennial flowers I have planted that have lasted more than a season. Presently the geraniums are in a spectacular bloom. At the moment I am looking at the bright red colors of a geranium that we once thought dead. It has come alive through the spring showers, lending its beauty to the white statue of Our Lady of Grace at its side, beneath a sprawling pine-like tree I have never bothered to identify. Beyond the fence our flock of red laying hens is wandering contentedly through the evening shadows in the orchard, feasting and fertilizing. Is it a sign of mental illness to be mesmerized by the sight of feeding chickens for, say, more than ten minutes at a time? Twenty minutes? One hour? I hope not. I keep the door of my office open just to watch them.
In his latest work of whimsey titled "Civilised Barbarism, Barbaric Civilisation", Andrew Cusack remarks on the contemptuous attitude of many north Americans toward Latin cultures in general:
And for every Americano sneering at the North, there is an Estadounidense who sneers at the laziness and corruption of the South. “Why don’t these people WORK?!?” (The answer: because there are more important things to do: namely, to live; there are more important things than railroads and factory chimneys).
This is a complaint that goes way, way back. Here in California, most of the invading yankees held the Californios in contempt for their lack of industry and ambition. The locals would practice their riding skills, enjoy their many festivals, court their pretty women, and generally lay-about their sprawling ranchos until the cattle drives, when they worked feverishly for a few short months in the one enterprise that was sufficient to keep them fed and comfortable the rest of the year. Needless to say, they were no match for yankee ambition and were eventually dispossessed of everything.
It would be wrong to idealize the Californio ethic altogether, which had serious limitations, but it seems more wrong to idealize "the American Dream" as popularly conceived - work, ambition, power, fame, getting rich, "winning". This isn't a caricature. A few weeks back, I actually heard a talk radio host say "America is all about getting rich". What a country! Every man a Donald Trump, the emptiest of empty suits. Can you imagine a better recipe for despair? Every schoolchild is told cruel lies from pre-school onward, told he can be anything he wants to be, taught to strive to be the president of the United States or, failing that, someone wealthy and famous and powerful, like a corporate CEO, a professional athlete, a rock star. To paraphrase a 19th century European observer, whom I have long thought was Tocqueville but now am not so sure - "Mexico is tragic, poor and Catholic, and the people are happy. The United States is progressive, prosperous and Protestant, and the people are depressed." An overstatement, to be sure, especially in light of Mexico's ongoing crucifixion, but there is enough truth in it to merit pause.
Leisure, according to Pieper, is "a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear ... Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion - in the real." I would add that stillness, or true leisure, is also a necessary precondition for repentance and conversion. Men without leisure properly understood are not only cut off from reality, but have rendered themselves incapable of repentance. St. John Climacus writes in Ladder of Divine Ascent: "Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a companion of stillness ... a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward." Leisure, then, is not necessarily play or recreation: it is the use of time for the profit of the interior life, most profoundly in silence and stillness.
That Americans do not know, experience, or even seem to desire leisure is not so much the result of economic conditions, but of the ubiquity of the American Dream, which conspires against leisure in every sphere - including, but not limited to, the economic. It's primarily a tyranny of the mind but is not without the assistance of external pressures. It's the reason that you can't escape the beat at the gas pump, or the supermarket, or the hotel lobby. It's the reason you can't get those jingles out of your head. It's the reason you feel guilty when you're not busy earning or producing or consuming. It's the reason that if you're not climbing that corporate ladder, you're falling behind.
It would help if we freed the American Dream from the prison of economics, or if that is asking too much, freed economics from the prison of materialism. The highest economy is the divine economy, that which is worth doing in the sight of God - an economy in which contemplation, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, the enrichment of the mind, and the life of the spirit are added to the Gross Domestic Product. In this economy what we once thought prosperity might actually be poverty; what we once believed progress might truly be perdition; what we once considered happiness might in fact be despair. And if we see all of this clearly, we will dream different dreams.