Leisure, work, and how to truly celebrate the holy days

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“Well, it’s almost the weekend.” Who has not heard a co-worker utter this phrase on a Thursday or Friday morning?

“The weekend” presents itself as a promise ready to fulfill and revitalize us — and yet, it is so short-lived that many of us return to work on Monday with the same reluctance and poor disposition as the previous week.

Why is this the case? What is the point of the leisure we enjoy on the weekends? Is it capable not only of giving us rest, but also of giving meaning to the whole workweek?

The answer to the latter question is yes, and the key is the Lord’s Day. Understanding leisure and its ultimate meaning as worship of God in the Eucharistic Liturgy can transform our view of work, family and Sunday.

The true meaning of leisure

Leisure is a Greek concept that denoted the time for activities that were good in and of themselves and restful for not forming part of the usual business or work. Such activities included art, athletic games, reading, writing and religious festivities.

In the Hebrew conception of the Sabbath, we find a similar practice, but with great differences.

“The Jews observed the Sabbath in this practice of rest more seriously than any other culture, taking a whole day … to truly rest: not to kindle a fire, not to walk very far, not to pick up many things, and of course not to do your normal job,” Dr. Mark Giszczak, professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver told the Denver Catholic.

Both the Greek and Hebrew understanding of rest debunk the idea that we can only find rest in idleness or laziness.

This point is clear in the Greek understanding of rest as a different type of activity, but to recognize it in the Hebrew conception, we must understand the Sabbath’s central purpose.

“The Sabbath rest is at the heart of the Jewish culture, and the heart of the Sabbath is not mere laziness, but worship. And I think this is the real meaning of leisure,” Dr. Giszczak said.

Dr. Giszczak referred to Josef Pieper’s argument in the book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which expresses the relationship between worship, leisure and work.

“The heart of his argument is that at the center of the practice of leisure is cult, worship of God, and that all of our activity during the week should be oriented toward the time of leisure,” he assured. “We work the whole week in order that we might rest on the Lord’s Day — and at the heart of Sunday rest is the real meaning of what rest is all about: relationship with God, worship.”

Practicing true Sunday leisure gives meaning to the rest of the workweek and saves us from the slavery of work.

“The purpose of work is not work itself. The purpose of work lies beyond the work. And what the Jewish practice of the Sabbath and Christian practice of keeping the Lord’s Day as a day of rest reveal to us is the orientation that we ought to have with all of our work,” Dr. Giszczak said. “That all of our work is actually oriented toward rest and that rest itself is oriented toward God. If we lose sight of that, then we end up as workaholics. And even though we may be making a lot of money or a lot of progress in our career, we’re actually going backwards as humans and not achieving the goal for which we were designed, which is relationship with God.”

Father John Riley, chaplain at the Augustine Institute in Denver, sees in the meaning of Sunday leisure the Biblical account of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42).

“Martha is ‘busy,’ and the Greek word used is perispato: anxious, worried, preoccupied — the way most of us live our week,” he said. “Mary, as Martha sees it, is doing nothing. But Luke points out, she’s listening — and that takes effort, attention and love. It’s not inactivity, but the greatest activity. It’s prayer, and, of course, the heart of prayer on a Sunday is to gather around the holy altar at Mass.”

While the heart of leisure is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, Sunday is also a time to encounter God in our closest relationships and his creation.

“Another significant thing about the Lord’s Day is that it allows us to take time out of work in order to build relationships with our family members and friends. And that’s crucially important too: friendships and good loving relationships in one’s family are part of the meaning of life, and if we totally devote ourselves to work, then we fail to build those relationships and our life and work fail to have meaning,” Dr. Giszczak said.

Practices and their enemies

Father Riley emphasized that there are numerous practices families can do to observe Sunday, but he added: “If a family doesn’t make the effort and doesn’t plan it and make a commitment to each other and to God, it will not happen.”

His first recommendation: having a festive meal of several courses with every member of the family. “No cellphones, no screens… How many families don’t even have one meal a week together?” he said.

Dr. Giszczak likewise highlighted the importance of a family meal: “If we have an extra special holy day like Easter, we have an extra special and wonderful feast. Special foods that we eat on those days help us commemorate and enter more deeply into them.”

Both also recommended practices such as going for a walk at the park or a hike in the mountains, visiting a museum, enjoying fellowship with family and friends, playing an instrument or reading.

Dr. Giszczak especially considered music “a really incarnational activity” and a beautiful way to celebrate a special day, and encouraged those who played instruments to share their gifts with family and friends on Sundays.

Asking children to propose activities for Sundays can also add variety and help them understand the importance of planning ahead for this leisure time, Father Riley added.

This said, planning and being faithful to such plans is not always easy, as there are many enemies that can ruin the Lord’s Day.

“The number one enemy of Sunday leisure is the screen, whether it’s a large panel or personal computer, or your cellphone,” Father Riley assured. “I love to watch things on the screen, but we let it take over. It’s splitting families and we’re watching it happen.”

Regarding smartphones and social media, Dr. Giszczak said, “I think we should do our best to recognize that good friendships and good family relationships are incarnational, and that we want to live out real friendships and real relationships with one another face to face.”

Both added that other enemies of Sunday leisure include not disconnecting from work, such as checking work emails; and participating in arduous scheduled activities, such as Sunday sports, which can become the center of the Lord’s Day or separate the family instead of uniting it.

To overcome these struggles, Father Riley recommends being intentional and taking the meaning of Sunday into prayer.

“I think the father, with mom on the same page, has to call [the children] together, maybe over a meal, and just say, ‘Guys, we’re going to make this a priority. Let’s look at the calendar and let’s make it happen…’ If they lack inspiration to plan or come up with ideas, I just say: Why not take it to prayer? I’m sure God might have a few good ideas.”

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”