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The Life of Virtue - Eutrapelia

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
One day, so the story goes, some people came across St John the Evangelist playing games and telling jokes with his friends. They were shocked. Not the thing, so they thought, for one so close to the Lord. He got one of his friends to take up a bow and to fire arrows from it, one after another. ‘Why is he doing that’, asked the scandalised folk. ‘If he goes on using the bow, and does not relax it occasionally, the bow will break’, replied Saint John.

The point is clear: the human being needs time to relax and to rest, time for enjoyment and games, for the witty conversation of friends, time for re-creation. If we are to be useful to our friends and are to respect the limitations on our energies, then we must become skilled in knowing when to stop, turn aside and relax. It is only common sense, you might say. Nevertheless we often hear about people ‘burning out’, exhausting themselves and running close to physical and emotional breakdown. It can be in any walk of life, any profession or business, but often it is people in the caring or helping professions who over-do things: social workers, nurses, clergy, parents, teachers. Rather than being a sign of dedication and selflessness such experiences may simply show a lack of wisdom, a failure to respect oneself and one’s needs, ignorance of one’s limits, a failure to listen to the messages of the body.

Aristotle believed that what was required for proper relaxation and enjoyment was not just a social skill but a special virtue, another kind of temperateness. He called it eutrapelia (another good name for a cat!). With this virtue a person will know that he or she must relax, and will know when and how to do it. Because it is a virtue, concerned with what is morally good, it will not allow us to enjoy ourselves at the expense of others or in a way that is wrong (destructive or obscene, for example). Like all virtues it stands between two extremes, buffoonery (stupid carry on) and boorishness (inability to take a joke). Eutrapelia strikes the right note, helping us to relax in a healthy way. Aquinas once again takes up what Aristotle says and includes it in his account of the good human life (Summa theologiae II.II 72,2; 168,2)

This common sense and Greek wisdom is found also in the Bible. After the work of creation God rested, teaching us the need for special days and years, times of rest and celebration, Sabbaths and jubilees (Gen 2.2-3; Exod 20.8-11; Lev 23-25). The point of God’s work is to share his delight and happiness with human creatures. God’s wisdom says: ‘I was by his side, a master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere in his world, delighting to be with human beings’ (Prov 8.30-31).

The Father is the Lord of the Dance (Zeph 3.17-18) who invites us to dance before him as David did before the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6.16). For the early Christians the dance went on in the paschal experience of Jesus. The resurrection is God’s great joke, at the devil’s expense, an unexpected and witty response to the apparent victory of Satan so that ‘he who sits in the heavens laughs’ (Ps 2). Dance continued in the liturgy, the Lord’s Day was the day of rest and recreation, the holy days became the holidays: a resting in the Lord who pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. Our holidays and Sundays are not just necessary relaxation to rest the bow and gather our strength for the coming week. This rest from our work reminds us that it is God’s world and not ours. The progress of the world depends on Him before it depends on us. Human life is a gift and a grace to be received and lived with joy, so that we may eventually enter the place of rest reserved for God’s people (Heb 4.1-11), God’s place of peace and delight.

Eutrapelia is the virtue that enables us to give ourselves fully to the very serious business of enjoying the delights of friendship and love, family and friends, books and games, wine and Guinness. Some people are fortunate enough to live in places where they can be joyful in the sunshine!

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