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Taking back Sundays for the sake of “holy leisure”


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Jean Elizabeth Seah - published on 10/15/17

Americans find virtue in working hard, but there is virtue, too, in following God's own lead and really taking that day of rest.
“Regret is a waste of time,” Dream said. “No, I think regret is when people realize they’ve wasted all the time they’ve had,” Chris argued. — Mary Borsellino, The Boy Who Gave Away His Birthday

The Christian life is a harmonization of the contemplative and the active life. We see from Genesis that God rested after creating the universe, and sanctified this day of rest. The Douay-Rheims Bible explains:

“He rested”: That is, he ceased to make or create any new kinds of things. Though, as our Lord tells us, John 5:17,”He still worketh,” viz., by conserving and governing all things, and creating souls.

St. Benedict had strong feelings about what he called otium sanctum, or “holy leisure” – a time meant to be spent each day — but most particularly on the Lord’s Day —  in simply relaxing while dwelling on the good. A way of refreshment and regrouping; enjoying “face time” with family and friends.

The Christian Sabbath is very much meant to be a part of that, as expressed in the Catechism.

For Christians, (Sunday’s) ceremonial observance replaces that of the Sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish Sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2175) Just as God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,” human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives. (CCC 2184)

Virtual vices

How are we spending our leisure time? Would we call it “holy leisure”? In truth, we usually fritter away our times of “rest.” We are absorbed in screens of one sort or another – television, computer, smartphone, movie – and screens are barriers. They block out those around us. Before we know it, the day has turned into dusk, and we are no better for it. Indeed, we may be all the worse:

… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy. — Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (The Atlantic)

Twenge notes that instead of drinking, driving, or dating, teenagers are ensconced in their bedrooms, slaves to their smartphones. Their social lives are now conducted online, assisted by the addictive allure of “likes” and “followers.”

Meanwhile, the widespread availability of pornography online is wreaking havoc across the globe, contributing to domestic abuse in India and the demographic winter in Japan.

In the midst of it all, we see precipitously increased rates of depression and suicide.

Can we reclaim the joy of the Sabbath?

Maria von Trapp, whose life was memorialized in The Sound of Music (1965), wrote a magnificent reflection: “The Land Without a Sunday,” in which she voiced her astonishment at the busyness-and-business that characterized Sunday in the USA, and also discovered one aspect of its sad cause:

The climax of our discoveries about the American Sunday was reached when a lady exclaimed to us with real feeling, “Oh, how I hate Sunday! What a bore!” I can still hear the shocked silence that followed this remark. The children looked hurt and outraged, almost as if they expected fire to rain from heaven. Even the offender noticed something, and that made her explain why she hated Sunday as vigorously as she did. It explained a great deal of the mystery of the American Sunday. “Why,” she burst out, “I was brought up the Puritan way. Every Saturday night our mother used to collect all our toys and lock them up. On Sunday morning we children had to sit through a long sermon which we didn’t understand; we were not allowed to jump or run or play.” When she met the unbelieving eyes of our children, she repeated, “Yes, honestly — no play at all.” Finally one of ours asked, “But what were you allowed to do?” “We could sit on the front porch with the grownups or read the Bible. That was the only book allowed on Sunday.” And she added: “Oh, how I hated Sunday when I was young. I vowed to myself that when I grew up I would do the dirtiest work on Sunday, and if I should have children, they would be allowed to do exactly as they pleased. They wouldn’t even have to go to church.”

Redemptive rest

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God. — 1 Corinthians 10:31

Instead of “the Benedict Option” or “the Francis Option,” one of my friends is a wholehearted proponent of “the Tudor Option” (referring to the early Tudor period). In medieval days before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, redistributing national wealth at the expense of the peasantry, peasants celebrated more than 200 holy days each year.

… economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days [of work] a year. … Go back 200, 300 or 400 years and you find that most people did not work very long hours at all. In addition to relaxing during long holidays, the medieval peasant took his sweet time eating meals, and the day often included time for an afternoon snooze. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” notes Shor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.” — Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you” (Reuters)

This was curtailed in the Elizabethan era following Henry VIII:

In the Middle Ages, all of these feast days were excuses for a day off, Popish ceremonies, and general idleness. The thrifty Protestants, of course, disapproved, and limited the observance of many of the feast days. They remained on the calendar, but people were enjoined not to stop working. — Walter Nelson, “Elizabethan Calendar,” Mass Historia

As Catholics, we recognize that all time is given to us as a sacred gift from God, with the responsibilities of growing in holiness and serving our neighbor. Let us neither waste our leisure time, nor allow it to be taken up by work. We must rather keep our days of rest holy, spending them in fruitful ways that will cultivate our souls and bring true joy.

My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today! — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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