The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the only foundation of true freedom

Be still and know that I am God. 

I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.

Psalm 47: 11


In his 1947 essay Leisure the Basis of Culture the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote:

“[I]t might be asked whether we are not all of us proletarians and all of us, consequently, ripe and ready to fall into the hands of some collective labour State and be at its disposal as functionaries”[1]

Pieper’s fears, expressed at a time when Communism seemed ready to overwhelm post-war Europe, are in the process of being realised. The events of the last two years have revealed the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the modern west. Overnight the peoples of Europe, America and Australasia have surrendered basic freedoms in response to the lies and propaganda of an elite seeking to establish totalitarian control. Under the guise of public health, the political and economic elite is attempting the enslavement of the masses, and the majority are submitting, preferring what they presume to be the interests of their physical health, to their intellectual, moral and spiritual integrity. 

How ought we respond to this unprecedented encroachment by the state on the rights of the Church, the family and the individual? 

In place of chemical “immunization” we need what Pieper, back in 1947, called “spiritual immunization against the seductive appeal and power of totalitarian forms” which “must, surely, be sought and hoped for at a much deeper level of thought than on the level of purely political considerations.”[2]

In this article we will explore Pieper’s argument that at the root of modern man’s despair – and his consequent willingness to submit to totalitarianism – lies a false conception of the relationship between work and leisure, and between action and contemplation. There is, he proposes, one crucial route to return to sanity: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the observance of the holy day of Sunday. 

Modern man’s despair

When we observe our fellow citizens conforming cravenly yet zealously to the latest dictates of the totalitarian medical regime – wearing masks, shunning social contact, acquiescing in the destruction of the livelihoods of their neighbours, and proudly submitting to an experimental treatment – we will easily recognise Joseph Pieper’s description of modern man as he was already clearly manifested in 1947:

“[T]he fixed, mask-like readiness to suffer in vacuo, without relation to anything. It is the absence of any connection with reality or real values that is distinctive. And it is because this readiness to suffer (which has been called the heart of discipline, of whatever kind) never asks the question ‘to what end’ that it is utterly different from the Christian conception of sacrifice.”[3]

This is a description of men and women who have so lost connection with what is real and true – both objective reality and their authentic subjective experience of reality – that they are willing to conform themselves to the false and anti-Christian ideologies promoted by those wielding economic and political power. However:

“The Christian conception of sacrifice is not concerned with the suffering involved qua suffering, it is not primarily concerned with the toil and the worry and with the difficulty, but with salvation, with the fullness of being, and thus ultimately with the fullness of happiness: ‘The end and the norm of discipline is happiness.”[4]

That is to say, the life of the Catholic is ordered towards that which is good, true and beautiful, for which he may have to suffer – even unto death – but it is not ordered to suffering for suffering’s sake, and certainly not to suffering for the sake of the power and wealth of an anti-Christian elite.

The false doctrine of the merit of suffering for suffering’s sake – which has unfortunately influenced many Catholics – is wholly contrary to the doctrine of St Thomas Aquinas. 

The Angelic Doctor teaches that:

“Virtue essentially regards the good rather than the difficult. Hence the greatness of a virtue is measured according to its goodness rather than its difficulty.”[5]

And also:

“The ‘good’ has, more than the ‘difficult,’ to do with the reason of merit and virtue. Therefore, it does not follow that whatever is more difficult is more meritorious, but only what is more difficult, and at the same time better.”[6]

Work vs leisure 

The error that suffering is valuable for its own sake, rather than because of the good for which we suffer, is closely related to a second error which dominates the modern mind, and which makes our contemporaries particularly vulnerable to surrendering fundamental freedoms in return for material prosperity. This is the error that work has value in and of itself, disconnected from the end for which it is performed.

This error is well expressed in a popular quotation cited by Max Weber in his classic work The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “one does not work to live; one lives to work”.[7] This view – which would be considered non-controversial by many of our contemporaries – is exactly opposite to the teaching of Aristotle, which represents the true spirit of the classical and medieval west:

“happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure”[8]

That is, we work in order that we may have the necessities of life, which allow us to enjoy leisure. This view is incomprehensible to those who see the creation and enjoyment of material wealth as the essential function of human life. It is both comprehensible and urgent to those who view contemplation – natural and supernatural – as the real end of human existence.

Aristotle and St Thomas vs Immanuel Kant

“Man desires to know.”[9]

It is with this fundamental truth that Aristotle begins his Metaphysics. Yet man also, as St Thomas teaches, “desires happiness naturally and by necessity”.[10] There is no contradiction between these two statements; man’s ultimate happiness consists in knowing. Eternal beatitude is reached “when we see God through His Essence”.[11] The “perfect happiness to which he [man] was destined… consists in the vision of the Divine Essence.”[12] In our present life, we find happiness in knowledge, whether that be the knowledge obtained through our senses, or the knowledge attained by our intellect. The highest form of intellectual knowing is that which we call contemplation.

We cannot enter into a full discussion of the nature of contemplation here. However, we may note that the human intellect has two modes of knowing: ratio and intellectusRatio is that form of knowing which is distinctive to us rational animals: “Men are called rational because they come to know the truth by the methods of discourse, being constrained to follow such a device because of their feebleness in discerning things.”[13]Pieper explains that: 

Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions.”[14]

While ratio is the “distinctively human” form of reasoning, being shared by neither animals nor angels, it is nonetheless not the only form of intellectual perception possessed by man.

St Thomas teaches:

“Although the knowledge which is most characteristic of the human soul occurs in the mode of ratio, nevertheless there is in it a sort of participation in the simple knowledge which is proper to higher beings”[15]

This participation in the simple knowledge proper to higher beings – the angels – is called intellectus.

Pieper writes:

Intellectus… is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye. The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together. The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.”[16]

He continues:

“Our knowledge in fact includes an element of non-activity, of purely receptive vision… the fulfilment of the highest promise in man”.[17]

Crucially, he notes that:

“The simple vision of the intellectus, however, contemplation, is not work. If, as this philosophical tradition holds, man’s spiritual knowledge is the fruit of ratio and intellectus; if the discursive element is fused with ‘intellectual contemplation’ and if, moreover, knowledge in philosophy, which is directed upon the whole of being, is to preserve the element of contemplation, then it is not enough to describe this knowledge as work, for that would be to omit something essential. Knowledge in general, and more especially philosophical knowledge, is certainly quite impossible without work, without the labor improbus of discursive thought. Nevertheless, there is also that about it which is, essentially, not work.” [18]

Ultimately if we are to achieve contemplation – and thus fulfil “the highest promise in man” – we must enjoy leisure. Leisure, in the sense used here, is “a mental and spiritual attitude – it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation.”[19]


“It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul… Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies… an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen.

“Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear… For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. […]

“Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who let the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves… When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by dreamless sleep. Or as the Book of Job says ‘God giveth songs in the night’ (Job 35:10). Moreover, it has always been a pious belief that God sends his good gifts and his blessings in sleep. And in the same way his great, imperishable intuitions visit a man in his moments of leisure.”[20]

Alas, this higher intuitive form of knowledge is precisely that which our modern way of living makes extremely difficult to attain.[21] One of the philosophical roots of the modern approach – as of so many modern errors – is found in the distorted psychology and philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as Pieper explains:

“Kant, for example, held knowledge to be exclusively discursive: that it to say, the opposite of receptive and contemplative; and his opinion on this point has quite recently been called ‘the most dogmatic assumption of Kantian epistemology’. According to Kant man’s knowledge is realized in the act of comparing, examining, relating, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, demonstrating – all of which are active forms of intellectual effort. Knowledge, man’s spiritual, intellectual knowledge (such is Kant’s thesis) is activity, exclusively activity.”[22]

The notion that all knowledge is the result of man’s own intellectual work is, as Pieper notes, incompatible with the idea of knowledge as a gift:

“[T]he highest form of knowledge, comes to man like a gift – the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble. On one occasion St. Thomas speaks of contemplation and play in the same breath: ‘because of the leisure that goes with contemplation’ the divine wisdom itself, Holy Scripture says, is ‘always at play, playing through the whole world.’ [Prov 8:30]”[23]

The inability to receive the gift of intuitive knowledge leaves man impoverished and unable to truly apprehend that which is. It leaves man closed off to God and to the creation which speaks of Him:

“Look at the ‘worker’ and you will see that his face is marked by strain and tension, and these are even more pronounced in the case of the ‘intellectual worker’. These are the marks of that perpetual activity (exclusive of all else) of which Goethe remarks that ‘it ends in bankruptcy.’ These are the revealing marks of the intellectual sclerosis that comes with not being able to receive or accept, of that hardening of the heart that refuses to suffer anything”.[24]

Leisure the precondition of contemplation

In the modern world, leisure is seen as something which is necessary so that man can regain his strength and be ready to work again. For those who are growing old, leisure, or rather “retirement”, is justified as a reward granted in return for many years of productive work. To seek leisure for its own sake seems synonymous with idleness. At worst our contemporaries may view leisure as: “another word for laziness, idleness and sloth”.[25]

It may come as a surprise to some readers – but hopefully not at this point in our reflections – that the authentic view of leisure is very different. Pieper writes:

“At the zenith of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it was held that sloth and restlessness, ‘leisurelessness’, the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’.”[26]

He continues:

“It may well seem paradoxical to maintain that the restlessness at the bottom of a fanatical suicidal activity should come from the lack of a will to action”.

However, this can be understood when we have grasped the true nature of the capital sin of acedia. This is usually translated as sloth in English, but its real meaning is other than our commonly accepted understanding of that word. Pieper explains:

“In the first place acedia does not signify the ‘idleness’ we envisage… Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer, the claims, that belong to his nature. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is.  Acedia is the ‘despair from weakness’… Metaphysically and theologically, the notion of acedia means that a man does not, in the last resort, give the consent of his will to his own being; that behind or beneath the dynamic activity of his existence, he is still not at one with himself”.[27]

When man refuses to be as God made him, refuses to conform to the order placed in creation, and to the natural law which directs him to his proper end, he cannot be at peace with himself and cannot enjoy true leisure. This incapacity to be himself will lead to despair: “which amounts to saying that despair and the incapacity for leisure are twins.”[28]

On the other hand, if man opened himself to true leisure, he would reawaken his capacity for experiencing the reality of created nature. How then can the modern world return to leisure, and thus to sanity?

Leisure cannot be sought for utilitarian ends

There is a crucial point that must be made at this point of our discussion. The kind of leisure that we – following Pieper – are describing is something essentially opposed to utilitarianism:

“[L]eisure stands opposed to the exclusive ideal of work qua social function. 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 butfor work.”

True leisure is entirely different. It stands outside and beyond mere periods of “not working”. It is in fact a higher order of life, directed as it is towards contemplation:

“[T]he point is also that he should continue to be capable of seeing life as a whole and the world as a whole; that he should fulfil himself, and come to full possession of his faculties, face to face with being as a whole.

“That is the sense in which the powers necessary to enjoy leisure are among the fundamental powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplation in which the soul steeps itself in being, and the capacity to raise up the mind and heart and ‘celebrate’, in the full religious sense of the word, leisure is the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and is so doing touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.”[29]

Pieper concludes:

“It is only in and through leisure that the ‘gate of freedom’ is opened and man can escape from the closed circle of that ‘latent dread and anxiety’ which a clear-sighted observer has perceived to be the mark of the world of work”.[30]

Divine worship the only foundation of true leisure 

We have seen that leisure by its nature cannot be sought for utilitarian ends, but rather takes man outside of everyday concerns to the higher mode of knowing we call contemplation. Leisure is not about utility, but about “celebration” of being itself, and ultimately therefore of God. Pieper notes:

“The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in ‘celebration’. Celebration is the point at which three elements of leisure emerge together: effortlessness, calm and relaxation, and its superiority to all and every function. 

“But if ‘celebration’ is the core of leisure, the leisure can only be made possible and indeed justifiable upon the same basis as the celebration of a feast: and that foundation is divine worship.”[31]

It is in divine worship that:

“[A] certain definite space of time is set aside from working hours and days, a limited time, specially marked off – and like the space allotted to the temple, is not used, is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends. Every seventh day is a period of time of that kind: that is what a feast is, and such is its only origin and justification.”[32]

It is this kind of sacred time that modernity has no space for:

“There can be no such thing in the world of ‘total labour’ as space which is not used on principle; no such thing as a plot of ground, or a period of time withdrawn from use. There is in fact no room in the world of ‘total labour’ either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the ‘worker’s’ world, the world of ‘labour’ rests solely upon the principle of rational utilisation. […]

“Separated from the sphere of divine worship, of the cult of the divine, and from the power it radiates, leisure is as impossible as the celebration of a feast. Cut off from worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman. […]

“The celebration of divine worship then, is the deepest of the springs by which leisure is fed and continues to be vital – though it must be remembered that leisure embraces everything which, without being merelyuseful, is an essential part of a full human existence.”[33]

Man must gratefully accept the goodness, truth and beauty of creation, and “just as Holy Scripture tells us that God rested on the seventh day and beheld that ‘the work which he had made’ was ‘very good’ – so too it is leisure which leads man to accept the reality of creation and thus to celebrate it.”[34]

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the sole basis of true leisure

“So the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the furniture of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made: and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.  And he blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” (Gen 2: 1-3)

To save himself from inhumanity and despair man must return to contemplation and to divine worship.

But what form of worship is he to choose? Can he establish a new religion suited to the needs of modern times?

This must be answered decisively in the negative, for “it is of the very nature of religious worship that its origin lies in a divine ordinance” therefore it is impossible “to expect a genuine religious worship, a cultus, to arise on purely human foundations, on foundations made by man.”[35]

There can be “no such thing as a feast that does not ultimately derive its life from divine worship” and all attempts since the French Revolution to manufacture new forms of festal celebration have failed to provide for humanity’s needs: 

“[F]estivity is only a possibility where divine worship is still a vital act – and nothing shows this so clearly as a comparison between the living and deeply traditional feast day, with its roots in divine worship, and one of those rootless celebrations, carefully and unspontaneously prepared beforehand, and as artificial as a maypole.”[36]

We must therefore seek out that religion and that religious worship which has been divinely established. It alone provides the basis for true leisure, for true contemplation, and for the ultimate vision of God. Pieper writes:

“Worship is fore-ordained – or it does not exist at all. There can be no question of founding a religion or instituting a religious cultus. And for the Christian there is, of course, no doubt in the matter: post Christumthere is only one, true and final form of celebrating divine worship, the sacramental sacrifice of the Catholic Church… a sacrifice held in the midst of creation which is affirmed by this sacrifice of the God-man”.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the only remedy for modern man’s overwhelming misery and despair. Only the Mass can make men truly free:

“In leisure, as was said, man oversteps the frontiers of the everyday workaday world, not in external effort and strain, but as though lifted into ecstasy… Let no one imagine for a moment that this is a private and romantic interpretation. The Church has pointed to the meaning of the incarnation of the Logos in the self-same words: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur, that we may be rapt into love of the invisible reality through the visibility of that first and ultimate sacrament: the Incarnation.

“Now our hope is that the true sense of sacramental visibility in the celebration of the Christian cultus should be become manifest to the extent needed for drawing the man in us, who is ‘born to work’, out of himself, and should draw him out of the toil and moil of every day into the sphere of unending holiday, and should draw him out of the narrow and confined sphere of work and labour into the heart and centre of creation.”[37]

To conclude, the Catholic Church possesses all the means necessary for man’s salvation. She also elevates human society far beyond any level that would be attainable by man’s natural efforts alone. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the centre of our supernatural life, and both the cornerstone and centrepiece of Christian civilisation. The Mass alone gives meaning to sacred places and sacred time, and it is in the context of the Mass alone that man can truly rest in leisure and contemplation, directed to God and “delighted every day, playing before him at all times.” (Prov 8:30)

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[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru, (English edition, London, 1952), p66.

[2] Pieper, Leisure, p66.

[3] Pieper, Leisure, p41-42.

[4] Pieper, Leisure, p42. The closing quotation is from St Thomas Aquinas, ST II.II q. 141 a. 5.

[5] II.II q.123 a. 12.

[6] II.II q. 27. a. 8.

[7] Quoted in Pieper, Leisure, p26.

[8] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book X.7, trans. W.D. Ross.

[9] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, line 1.

[10] I. q. 94 a.1.

[11] I. q. 94 a.1.

[12] I. q. 94 a.1.

[13] St Thomas quoted by Robert Brennan O.P., Thomistic Psychology: A Philosophic Analysis of the Nature of Man, (New York, 1941), p197.

[14] Pieper, Leisure, p33.

[15] St Thomas, Quaestiones disputate de veritate, quoted in Pieper, Leisure, p35.

[16] Pieper, Leisure, p34.

[17] Pieper, Leisure, p35.

[18] Pieper, Leisure, p35.

[19] Pieper, Leisure, p51-52.

[20] Pieper, Leisure, p53-54.

[21] The work of neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist is particularly relevant here. He diagnoses modern man’s condition as an imbalance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. His work can also be understood through the lens of the two modes of the intellect. See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (2nd ed, 2019).

[22] Pieper, Leisure, p32.

[23] Pieper, Leisure, p41.

[24] Pieper, Leisure, p36-37. 

[25] Pieper, Leisure, p48.

[26] Pieper, Leisure, p48.

[27] Pieper, Leisure, p49.

[28] Pieper, Leisure, p51.

[29] Pieper, Leisure, p57.

[30] Pieper, Leisure, p57.

[31] Pieper, Leisure, p71.

[32] Pieper, Leisure, p73.

[33] Pieper, Leisure, p75-76.

[34] Pieper, Leisure, p55.

[35] Pieper, Leisure, p79.

[36] Pieper, Leisure, p72.

[37] Pieper, Leisure, p80-81.

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