Have we found the love behind the Third Commandment?
If you wanted to make someone predictably neurotic—that is, the crippling anxiety would arrive right on schedule—how would you do it? Here is what I would do. I would say the following:
I love you so much that I must say this to you: You have to relax! You have to rest! You have to rest so completely that anything that you do besides breathing might qualify as not resting! And if you don’t rest sufficiently, if you don’t rest according to criteria that you can never know fully, you will go to Hell! FOREVER. Because I love you so much, I mandate that you have one 24-hour period of absolute rest once per week. Now, begin to rest peacefully in 3, 2, 1 … and remember … I’ll be watching …
Of course, what I’ve presented above is a caricature of the divine commandment to “keep holy the Sabbath.” I have written before about how much of what used to be Catholic cultures have lost almost completely any sense of Sabbath (see HERE). I stand by what I have written before. Today I want to look at those who would overcorrect the loss of the sense of Sabbath by imposing a neurotic anxiety that is the very antithesis of Sabbath rest.
I’ve listened to or read some very well-intentioned Catholics who (rightly) call for a recovery of a proper sense of Sabbath. But then they try to take up the (impossible) task of offering a rule for every conceivable circumstance, to determine whether any activity is inconsistent with respect for the Sabbath. That’s a bad idea for all sorts of reasons: (1) it reduces morality to a checklist, without any reference to conversion of heart; (2) it easily falls prey to absurdity, e.g., “Mom! I can’t clean up milk I just spilled on the kitchen floor—that would be work! It’s the Sabbath!”; (3) taken to extremes, it can turn our image of God away from a loving Father who offers us holiness and replaces the Abba of Jesus with the “Faultfinder General.”
It’s impossible to have a pre-conceived rule for every circumstance. That’s why we need the virtue of prudence, which helps us to apply universal principles (e.g., “Keep holy the Sabbath”) to particular circumstances (e.g,, “Does the Sabbath really require me to wait till Monday midnight to change the baby’s diaper?”).
Rather than tying ourselves up in knots over whether any given object is of sufficient weight such that lifting it qualifies as “work” and therefore is forbidden to be lifted on Sundays, let’s start with this question: “Why does God want us to rest on the Sabbath?”
God loves us. To love another is to want the best for us. God knows that what is best for us, his beloved, is himself. We are unhappy and incomplete to the degree that we offer our devotion to anything or anyone other than him. God made us with bodies, which need to be maintained. He made us social, which means we live in communities that must be provided for. Maintenance and provision take work. We fail at being human if we fail to do that work. Yet we are more than our work, more than what we produce, consume, use or acquire. Because we are fallen, we need to be reminded that this world is not our true home, that this life is not our only life, and that we were created for so very much more! That indispensable reminder of who we are and whose we are, comes to us in the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath.
So understood, the commandment can inspire gratitude rather than neurosis. Sure, we might need to plan the rest of our week better so that Sunday doesn’t become merely “Another-Saturday-but-with-Mass-tacked-on.” If we could spend even one day a week resting in the heart of Infinite Love, wouldn’t the rest of our week be less manic, less desperate?
C.S. Lewis warned us against the temptation to speak of “my” time, as if 24 hours in the day were owed to us. Every moment is an unmerited gift. If we let go of the illusion of “my” time, we will be enriched, as St. Ambrose taught us: “He took what is mine in order that He might impart to me what is His. He took it not to overturn it but to fill it.”
I believe that if we understood the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath in this way: “Learn to rest so that you can learn to love and be loved more,” we would gladly re-arrange our week to secure our Sundays, worshiping gladly, rather than from a grim sense of duty.
When I write next, I will offer some suggestions about how to pray with the Psalms. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.