Major League Baseball recently announced plans to start a shortened season at the end of this month.
My excitement for the possible return of my favorite sport was quickly tempered with annoyance about some new rules. There are some necessary health protocols, such as no spitting or high-fives. But there are other rules which have little to do with safety and more to do with efficiency, such as using the designated hitter in both leagues and starting extra innings with a runner on second base. These follow in the same vein as other recent experimental rule changes: the use of video replay to challenge an umpire’s call; the use of a clock to implement time limits between innings, pitching changes, and even individual pitches; limits on the number of coaching visits to the pitcher’s mound. All are purported to make the game more fast-paced and exciting, reducing the length of games and the possibility of human error.
My frustration with some of the efficiency-related rules have caused me to reflect on the purpose of leisure and why Americans are so very bad at it. New baseball rules are a small aggravation that reflect a much bigger and growing problem with our ability to rest.
Leisure is a form of rest, but it is not merely idleness or vegging out – what the ancient philosophers called “acedia.” Rather, leisure is restful contemplation. It is the active pursuit of a uniquely human activity, such as art, sport, reading, or meditation. As Christians, leisure is more than a philosophical aim. Our tradition requires Sabbath rest because it makes us receptive to God and God’s goodness in the world, in ourselves, and in each other. Acedia is an abject refusal to receive God’s command to rest. As St. Augustine puts it, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”
Culturally, Americans glorify work. More of it is always better. We obsess over producing, acquiring, and consuming material goods. Leisure transcends this utilitarian ethos, being boldly un-useful and inefficient in any economic or practical sense.
Enjoying sports is a great leisure activity, if we do it properly. To watch athletes whose abilities approach the edge of human possibility is to marvel at God’s creation.
But why are we so eager to make sports more efficient, ensuring that the games are over as quickly as possible? Is it so we can return to work or mindless acedia?
True leisure does not watch a clock. It cannot go on forever, but nevertheless, it asks us to step away from a schedule and simply be.
As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Leisure is that briefest glimpse of eternity. Of all the major sports, baseball is the only one that is potentially infinite. If no one scores in a tie game, it could theoretically go on forever. This is a feature, not a flaw.
This summer, our leisure time is perhaps less structured than ever. Maybe that is a good thing. With the pandemic ongoing, baseball may or may not happen. But if it does, I hope we can resist the temptation to contort leisure into something that more closely resembles a video game than human artistry.
We are made for God. We can never fully grasp God’s infinite nature, but true leisure slows us down enough to taste it.