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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.