Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
So begins Robert Frost’s sublime poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Traveling on a chill winter’s night, a lone figure finds himself gently pulling the reins of his horse and setting the buggy’s brake as he finds himself entranced. There amidst “easy wind and downy flake” are the lovely, dark and deep woods. Oh, his work beckons (it always does) and his horse, so used to the cadence of his own working hoofbeats, uneasily shakes his harness bells. It’s time to go, he reminds impatiently. We have work to do.
But the man just sits and breathes.
And finds himself in wonder.
Here is leisure. Even if for a brief respite amidst the ticking of the clock, the never-ending list, the ever-nagging anxiety. Here is solace. Here is peace.
As a fourth grader standing deskside and reciting this poem (a requirement from my beloved and long since passed Mrs. Duffy), I didn’t comprehend the point of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Now, in my forties and in my fourteenth year of medical practice, I do. Because I am hungry for that peace, that momentary solace amidst the promises and the miles to go before I sleep.
Josef Pieper penned an extraordinary essay, Leisure: The Basis of Culture that speaks to the solitary work-worn figure pausing for rest and opening himself to wonder. Something, I would reason, happened to Frost’s man as he rolled to a stop in the dark, wintry woods. This was not a moment to simply catch his breath, feed his horse, eat some food or take a nap. It was a moment transfixed by wonder. Look at these beautiful woods. Listen to that heaven-sent silence. He doesn’t have time for this, and yet he does. He must have time for this. This isn’t a break from work. This is leisure millions of miles from work. As Josef Pieper would write,
A break in one’s work, whether of an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work. It is a link in the chain of utilitarian functions. The pause is made for the sake of work and in order to work, and a man is not only refreshed from work but for work. Leisure is an altogether different matter…Leisure does not exist for the sake of work – however much strength it may give a man to work; the point of leisure is not to be a restorative, a pick-me-up, whether mental or physical; and though it gives new strength, mentally and physically, and spiritually too, that is not the point…The point and justification of leisure are not that the functionary should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that the functionary should continue to be a man.
Work allows us to use our God-given gifts to make manifest our vocation. But work without leisure – leisure which is not a passive relaxation born of exhaustion, but is an active openness to God and his many wonders – is soul shrinking. It prevents us, as Pieper reasons, from becoming Whole and risks reducing us to (what Georges Bernanos has described as) “stumps of men”.
In opening ourselves to leisure, we are not enjoying things – our family, our friends, literature, art, music and athletics – for utilitarian purposes. In other words, we are not using them as means to an end. Instead, we are enjoying them as ends in themselves and, perhaps, seeing them for the very first time. Josef Pieper illustrates this point when he observed,
However true it may be that the man who says his nightly prayers sleeps better for it, nevertheless no one could say his nightly prayers with that in mind. In the same way, no one who looks to leisure simply to restore his working powers will ever discover the fruit of leisure; he will never know the quickening that follows.
We don’t know how to be leisurely. Our time away from work is just that: Time away. Work has become the dominant place we have to be. Just consider the unread emails after vacation, the unanswered phone calls after the weekend, the hope that we can stay on time, stay on task, get it all done, get it all done. And so any time away from work is reduced to recovery. Call it a vacation, a break, a respite. It is still recovery – that deep gasp of air before we are plunged underwater yet again.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If we can be intentional in our work, we can be intentional in our leisure. We can recognize that to find peace and stillness, we must actually find time to be still. We must not passively recover, but actively open ourselves to the whispering voice of God reminding us of who we are and what we are called to do. There is joy in living in this moment simply to live in this moment. There is peace in breathing that cold winter’s air and losing ourselves in the beauty of the woods utterly unthinking about the dark road behind or the long road ahead. There is truly profound wisdom to be found in the Psalmist’s words, Be still and know that I am God.
And when we do this, Josef Pieper reminds us,
As the Book of Job says, “God giveth songs in the night.”…[God’s] great, imperishable intuitions visit a man in his moments of leisure. It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together…only for a moment perhaps.
I think G.K. Chesterton knew something of the deep wonder found in leisure and would have understood the momentary joy and insight that Robert Frost’s traveler experienced in those lovely, wintry woods. Concluding his book on Charles Dickens, Chesterton captured the eternal value of leisure – the joy, conviviality and fellowship for its own sake – to be found in the inns where we stay as we travel along life’s weary path.
[I have learned] that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn…
At the end of Robert Frost’s poem, the huddled figure broke his gaze, released the brake and snapped the reins. He must move on.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
We too must go. We have our own promises and miles to go before we sleep.
But let us nourish ourselves along the path…with the leisure of the inns and the wonder of the dark, deep woods. But we must be still.
Be still and know that I am God.
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