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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.