Some might wonder why St. Francis de Sales devotes attention to how one's recreation activities affect his or her spiritual life. Everyone needs recreation after all and, as long as one stays away from the most hideous forms of activity, one should have free rein in deciding how to spend one's free time. Right?
Francis is quick to agree that everyone needs recreation. "It is undoubtedly a defect," he writes in his Introduction to the Devout Life, "to be so strict, ill-bred, uncouth and austere as neither to take recreation ourselves nor to allow it to others." Every person needs to relax both mind and body.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the rather limited array of recreational activities on Francis' list – friendly conversation, playing the lute, singing, hunting, tennis, chess and "charging the ring" (?). Compare that with the almost limitless number of fascinations available to us today such as 200 TV channels, frequent meals out, organized sports, spectator sports, iPods, casino gambling and the infinite amusements of the Internet.
Ours is a society focused on entertainment. This in itself raises questions even when our sources of recreation and entertainment are innocent. How can people lead meaningful lives if a large portion of their waking hours is given away to frivolity?
This is a major societal question that is rarely broached so accustomed are we to spending long hours on activities that are peripheral to the vocations to which God has called us. The person who even asks such a question is bound to be looked upon as a killjoy or overly austere.
However, it is worth pondering what sort of future society has when so many of its members are devoting so much of their time to watching TV, amusing themselves or angling for an early retirement.
Francis de Sales does not ask the societal question, but he does recommend that people "take particular care not to become absorbed in amusement. No matter how innocent some kind of recreation may be, it is wrong to set heart and affections on it."
When it comes to dancing and playing cards – stereotypically off limits for Baptists, but not Catholics – Francis begins to express moral reservations. To be sure, he notes, there were saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Elizabeth of Hungary who played cards or even danced. These activities are not inherently immoral.
However, any game in which winning depends primarily on chance is problematic, Francis says. "There is no pleasure in gambling except to win and pleasure that comes from our companions' loss." Any gain ought to be the result of work and not mere chance.
Gambling is not true recreation because it is not strenuous. It leads one to worry, apprehension and gloom. There is no revitalization of one's energy from it.
Dancing, likewise, leans toward evil because it is conducted in the dark, encourages vanity and leads one to sleep late the next day, thus losing precious hours when one could be serving the Lord. Balls and dancing are like mushrooms, Francis says, because they attract all the poisons that surround them – quarrels, envy, scoffing and wanton love.
One can, however, "dance properly." That is, one can dance sparingly with modesty and dignity. After dancing, turn your mind to holy things "to prevent the baneful effects that the empty pleasure taken in dancing might stamp on our minds."
If you have read this far, you are doing well. Many have probably stopped reading by now, rebelling against what they might see as archaic prudery about dancing and card playing.
Still, if we see no problem with the specific activities Francis chooses to excoriate, we nevertheless need to reflect on the quality and quantity of our recreational activities and whether they draw us toward or push us away from God.
Nothing in our lives is morally neutral, least of all our forms of recreation. We are what we do. We are what we put into our minds.
If we want to draw nearer to God – and helping us get there is the focus of Introduction to the Devout Life – we need to be sure that our recreational activities do not draw us away from him or exploit other people. Our amusements are a serious business.