Let’s talk impossible penances. From this morning’s readings:
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath from following your own pursuits on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight, and the LORD’s holy day honorable; if you honor it by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice, then you shall delight in the LORD . . .
And now for a quick peek at the Catechism before anyone starts in with the, “But that was the old law! Catholics don’t have to do that!”:
2172 God’s action is the model for human action. If God “rested and was refreshed” on the seventh day, man too ought to “rest” and should let others, especially the poor, “be refreshed.”96 The sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money.97
And another one:
2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.123 Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.
The discussion of what makes up a reasonable Sunday is somewhat nuanced, so read the whole thing.
Bad Arguments Against Sunday Rest
All that nuance, combined with the real demands of our vocations even on Sundays, combined with a persistent desire to do whatever we feel like, can lead to some extraordinarily weak reasoning:
- Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, so that means I should go to the mall.
- My grandmother slaved away all day to cook Sunday dinner. Therefore I have a moral obligation to eat out every Sunday after Mass.
- Hospitals and pharmacies have to be open on Sundays, and Our Lord turned water into wine, therefore the liquor store . . .
- Mowing the lawn is my hobby.
That last one is admissible for about three people. Everyone else, we aren’t fooled and you’ve just violated another commandment.
Why the bad arguments? Because observing Sunday as a day of rest and worship is completely contrary to our cultural values. The idea of not using Sundays to catch up on chores and errands is utterly foreign. Hasn’t Sunday been set aside as the sacred day when we can work and shop undisturbed?
Planning. It always comes back to planning.
The other argument, the almost-persuasive one, is the, “But it’s impossible!”
It is not impossible, especially in light of the very grounded and vocation-respecting teaching of the Church. It does, however, require changing your life. Having made the change, however imperfectly and inconsistently, here is what we found was necessary:
1. Decide it’s important. As long as you are persuaded this is one of those bonus-teachings, it will forever be your hair shirt.
2. Figure out what ‘work’ is. Take birthday parties, for example. Sometimes they are relaxing and restful, the perfect way to enjoy a Sunday afternoon with a few friends. Other times not. Just not. Exercise is the same way: Is it rest and relaxation? It all depends. You have to start thinking about what is true leisure and what is laborious, and ordering your life so that the labor happens Monday – Saturday, and the leisure gets pride of place on Sundays.
3. Remember you aren’t the center of the universe. The Lord hears the cry of the minimum wage earner. If it’s relaxing for you but laborious for someone else, you’d better have a really good reason for wrecking someone’s Sunday. There are good reasons. There are mitigating circumstances. “Because I feel like it,” however, is not in itself sufficient reason to rouse the servants from their day of rest. If your hobby is ‘going shopping’, I’m going to gently suggest you investigate other hobbies.
4. Do more work on Saturdays. (And all the other days of the week.) If you are going to take Sundays off, you’ll either have to do less work overall, or move your Sunday work to a different day. Some of this you can pull off by a simple schedule-change: Invite the friends over for beer and snacks on Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday afternoon. Some of it, though, is going to make Saturday a little busier. Think manna in the desert – you’ve got to prep ahead if you want Sunday off.
Is it really that hard?
It all depends. What’s your life like? What are the social pressures you have to navigate? How much control of your life do you really have? If you can pretty much do what you like on the weekend, taking Sundays off is a piece of cake. No problem. Reorganize a little, develop some new habits, and before you know it, it will be second nature.
If your pushy friends and relatives are sure you’re a self-righteous prick for wanting to have lunch at home after Mass, that ugliness is going to come to the forefront one way or the other. Maybe it’ll blow over in one quick thunderstorm, or maybe someone will smolder with hate because you have the audacity to not want to go to the mall, again, week after insufferable week.
If you have to feed your family, or you have to be home from the trip by Monday but can’t leave until after Saturday . . . things happen. Keep working on it. Just because you can’t have your Sunday quite how it should be doesn’t mean you throw out the whole notion of the Lord’s Day. Be discerning: Don’t scruple over legitimate vocational demands; forgive yourself and try again when it’s really just your own fault.
Fridays no meat, Sundays no work . . . there’s a rhythm to it. It’s like we’re not robots. It’s like maybe we were made to live this way.