The Latin word otium appears often in the writings of Augustine, and is significant in his spirituality and his perception of obedience to the call of Christ per agency of the Church.
This could be free time associated with a person’s withdrawing from civic affairs (as in “retirement”), the pejorative free time made available by the adoption of wanton idleness, or misspent leisure.
Any free time that aided a person’s better preparation for public duty was acceptable, and thought to be laudable.
But amongst these possible common usages of otium, Augustine distinguishes otium from its possible meaning of idleness, and uses the word to denote the free time to devote to a laudable purpose.
For example, he noted in his Confessions that, after accepting ordination to the priesthood, he successfully asked Valerius, who then was the bishop of Hippo, to grant him a period of otium (time free from assigned his pastoral duties) for intense Scriptural study.
He sought unburdened time in which he could intensely and uninterruptedly study the Scriptures so as to equip himself better for subsequent pastoral ministry by study.
For Augustine, therefore, otium typically described the unburdened time in which to study or to reflect. He saw otium as a positive phenomenon whereby a good purpose could be accomplished. It was not negatively “doing nothing,” or simply “wasting time.”
Similarly Augustine applied the word otium to monasticism. In his work De opere monachorum (On the Work of Monks) Augustine presents otium as the context of ascent accomplishment and the search for the Kingdom of God.
As Augustine himself did when called to the priesthood when personally he would have preferred a reflective Christian life within a lay community, Augustine held that the call to service by the church was a necessitas (necessity) to be heeded, even when it confronted a personal desire for contemplative and private otium.
He saw a degree of otium necessary so that a spiritual interiority could be nurtured into greater growth.
In his later writings, he called the monastic life otium sanctum (holy free time), i.e., a monk was freed from world obligations so that, by study of the Scriptures and by prayer, he could better serve the church in whichever manner was required of him.
Throughout Augustine’s life, he sought the otium to pursue the delight of knowledge, but the philosophical end-points at which otium aims changed with Augustine’s intellectual and theological development.