Unlike Communist Russia, in America there is no state suppression of observing the Sabbath day -- but you might not know it by the way we act
A colleague of mine at St. Gregory’s University recently introduced me to a marvelous little essay by Maria Von Trapp,“The Land Without a Sunday.” The essay, taken from her 1955 book Around the Year with the Trapp Family, begins by recounting how Communist Russia attempted to do away with Sunday. The idea was to drain Sunday of its religious and cultural power by removing it as a public day of rest. An individual might receive a day off from work every five days, or seven days, or even every nine days. However, since people had to work in shifts, most of one’s friends and neighbors would still be working on one’s personal day off. As a result, there was never a day in which the gears of society fully ground to a halt, no silent morning interrupted only by church bells. It was a society of unceasing labor, a “land without a Sunday.”
The enduring value of Von Trapp’s essay is found not only in her description of life in Communist Russia, but also in her description of the cultural shock her family endured upon its arrival in America in the late 1930s. As Von Trapp’s essay subtly suggests, Communist Russia was not the only land without a Sunday: America, too, seemed to lack something essential to the day. Von Trapp describes how the typical American would sleep in as late as he could in the morning (having stayed up most of the night on Saturday), and then jump in his car and go “whizzing around the corner” to an 11 a.m. church service. Sunday afternoons were even more horrifying to Von Trapp. As she noted, the preferred activity of a stereotypical American man after church “seemed to consist of putting on his oldest torn pants and cutting his front lawn, or washing his car with a hose.” One American lady even openly confessed her “hatred” of Sundays to Von Trapp.
In Von Trapp’s account, both Russia and America lack an appropriate celebration of Sunday, but for quite different reasons. In America, state suppression of Sunday is not the issue; people are free to do as they like. The impediment is somehow in the individuals themselves. The Americans that Von Trapp observes do go to church, but they seem otherwise incapable of the “rest” that characterizes both the Hebrew Sabbath and the Christian celebration of Sunday.
We must then ask ourselves the obvious question: Have our abilities to rest improved since the late 1930s? Have increased shopping opportunities, more demanding children’s sports and activities, and high-speed internet connections for our smartphones assisted us in celebrating Sunday in ways that are humanly rejuvenating? The question answers itself. Average church attendance has fallen precipitously since Von Trapp’s day. But even for faithful churchgoers, Sunday is often far from restful. It is not uncommon to feel that one is good at the “church” part of Sunday, but bad at the “rest” part.
What can be done? One possible approach to the problem is inspired in great measure by the thought of the philosopher Josef Pieper in Leisure: The Basis of Culture. As the title of the book indicates, Pieper’s thesis is that culture, in the best sense of the word, cannot simply be the result of human effort. Rather, the formation of culture also depends upon leisure—here defined not simply as “time off from work,” but also as a receptive, relaxed, and celebratory attitude of mind in which one can attend carefully to reality. Yet Pieper’s thesis has a second and more controversial aspect: leisure can ultimately be sustained only by divine worship. It is a bold claim, yet one that Pieper thinks is born out by a careful consideration of human history. Across cultures and throughout human history, the worship of the divine has been the primary motivation for humans to cease their labors. Only worship has trumped work. It is worship that has given rise to leisure.
Since we are social creatures, I would propose that our lack of Sunday rest must be, at least in part, a problem of culture (especially our particular family cultures). If Pieper’s thesis is correct, then the key to recovering the restfulness of Sunday will be to recover the religiosity of Sunday, to again orient our family cultures more fully to divine worship. We may attend Mass, but what else do we do on Sunday that opens us to God? Do we truly abstain from our work and chores for the day? Do we pray privately? Do we catechize our children or talk about God with our family? Do we pursue recreations with our family that can be referred to God? Perhaps when we can answer all these questions affirmatively, when Sunday has once again become for us Dies Domini, the Lord’s Day, we will find ourselves able to participate in that “rest” of God spoken of in the Book of Genesis.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Do you rest on Sunday?]