Adapted from Michael Naughton’s Getting Work Right:
Labor and Leisure in a Fragmented World (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019) and previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
The importance of the Sabbath and my need for Sunday became clear to me in 1999. Ironically, it was the year I received my first sabbatical (a word with the same root as Sabbath, which means “to rest”) at the University of St. Thomas. My sabbatical was anything but an experience of rest: gutting the upstairs of our dilapidated house, running a major international conference in India, finishing a book. Although my routine changed that year, my habits of overworking were much the same. But this was soon to change.
That year I was asked to give a paper at an academic conference in San Francisco. Immediately before presenting the paper, I was struck by an anxiety attack that challenged my ability to do in a way I had never before experienced.
My breath seemed to fail me, and as much as I tried, I could not muster the will power to overcome this sudden inability to speak in public.
I was on the verge of leaning over to my introducer to tell him I could not give my presentation and looking for the nearest exit. But I was too late. He began his in-
“The power of Sunday is in the rest it provides, not the work it produces…”
troduction, and my panic grew worse. Now I had to talk. Just say one word, I thought to myself, then the next, then the next. As I spoke, my voice quivered, and I had to deliver the words slowly, fearing that I would lose my ability to speak, as if the oxygen in my lungs were running out. It was one of the most humbling, perhaps even humiliating, experiences of my professional life.
The event left me feeling vulnerable. I began to search for the cause of this anxiety, this threat to my doing. Was it a physical problem? Was I drinking too much coffee? Not getting enough sleep? Working too hard? Was it a spiritual problem? Was I becoming too arrogant in what I was doing? Was the Lord teaching me a lesson in humility? In my anxiety, my mind whirled from one possible explanation to the next.
During the same year, my wife, Teresa, and I were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of Sunday and its Sabbath role, as we prepared for the Jubilee Year in 2000. Up to that time, Sunday was for us a different kind of day, but not a special day. It was different because of our pattern of going to church, making a mid-morning brunch, and watching or playing a sport in the afternoon. But it was not a day of rest. Even worse, Sundays tended to bring along a rather depressing feeling that set in especially in the late afternoon or early evening. I would find myself in a funk, experiencing a certain low-grade depression, a feeling of emptiness, and lack of meaning, what someone once coined “Sunday neurosis.”
Hoping to change all that, Teresa and I made a commitment in 1999 not to work on Sundays. I would stop working in the morning before the kids were up, and both of us would set aside house projects that we did not get to during the week. I distinctly remember the feeling of that first Sunday. It was like Christmas morning.
Sunday mornings have now become the most powerful time of the week for us. Setting aside the weekly Sabbath time has made our marriage better and stronger; I would even go so far to say that it has saved our marriage. Our relationships with our children are richer, and our relationships with God are more personal, even in the midst of family struggles and our own continuing immaturities.
On the other six days of the week, when I wake up, my work is waiting for me – sometimes actually pressing down on me. But on Sunday mornings, what awaits me is rest; not only a rest from work, but a rest in a reality that is beyond my doings and achievements, a rest that is asking me to receive reality rather than to change it. Most deeply, it is a resting in Christ.
I wish I could say that because of my Sunday observance I no longer get nervous before talks, that I never get depressed on Sunday afternoons, that our family Sabbath time is a continual experience of harmonious bliss, but this would not be true. The world is still fallen, and I am still battling sin. In keeping with its very nature, the Sabbath command is not simply instrumental, its goodness or usefulness to be measured by my success in various aspects of life.
The power of Sunday is in the rest it provides, not the work it produces; in receptivity, not in activity; in its celebratory affirmation of the deeply ordered goodness of creation, all of which nurtures our relationship with Christ. Its power is in moving us from a focus on ability, talent, achievement, and calculating results, and toward the healthy and necessary realization of what is done to and for us – all that can only be received and accepted – and ultimately toward the grace that points us to what is authentically human, to who we should be. It is a holy time, not for us to work on things but for God to work on us.
Lord’s Day Practices
The question then is what concrete form should Sunday take? How can Sunday be a special day, a different kind of day? What practices can mark it as a day of rest and celebration in the Lord?
These are not always easy questions to answer given the differences in circumstances and state of life in which we find ourselves. Yet, too often we Catholics reduce the Lord’s Day to an hour of Mass. The Lord is not looking for an hour from us but a whole day. We need to find ways to institutionalize and ritualize the Lord’s Day; otherwise the power of Sunday dissipates and we default to the habits of the culture of amusements and consumerism that fail to recreate, reorder and reorient.
Below are some practices that my wife and I have come to. They are not the only ones, and some may not work for you (except Mass – we all need to go to Mass), but they are a picture of our attempt to make the Lord’s Day a different kind of day. Also, know that we are far from perfect in our practices, and we are always in need of renewing our commitments that have a tendency to collapse from the pressures of life.
- Preparation During the Week As with most people, if our family does not carve out time for something and plan it out, it doesn’t happen. My wife has a regular note in her calendar every Wednesday that simply reads: “Sunday.” The note reminds her to initiate a brief discussion about the coming Sabbath day. What Mass will we be going to? Who might we have over? What might we do for family time? Proper preparation for Sunday provokes a change in the way we handle our Saturday. We make sure we get weekend chores done on Saturday so that Sunday can be free of them. We try to avoid the kinds of Saturday activities – binge entertainment, staying up late, drinking too much – that will make celebrating on Sunday more difficult. We also prepare the house for the next day’s feast. On Saturday evening we dress the kitchen table with a runner, candles, a cross, a Bible, and whatever else we might need for our celebration. If we are really planning well, we will get to confession on Saturday afternoon, a practice that helps greatly in keeping the Lord’s Day holy.
- Technology Fast On Sundays, our family becomes “techno-sabbatarian.” We turn off our screens and give our devices a break. We have found that our smartphones connect us to everything but our souls, and often strangely remove us from the presence of the people next to us. This is not absolute but still a general rule. We may watch a film or a game together but still find that the less electronic devices present on Sunday, the better.
- Sabbath Prayer We have added a ritual element to our Sunday by beginning the Lord’s Day with the lighting of an oil lamp and reciting a Sabbath prayer. This ritual is a powerful entrance into receiving the Lord’s Day and all its possibilities.
- Mass Given life’s complications, the simple act of getting to Mass can sometimes be a great achievement! In heading to Mass, we try to be conscious of the specific act of getting there, which is a little pilgrimage. We like to think of the people all over the world (as well as the saints and angels!) mobilizing to gather as the Church, one family in Christ. We remember that job titles, social prestige, and positions related to wealth and privilege are put aside when we gather together as brothers and sisters equal before the Lord. Sharing the Eucharist together is at the heart of our Sunday. According to the Church, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life,” so we try to make it the source and summit of our lives as well with the high point on the Sabbath day.
- Sabbath Walk We try to find a time each Sunday to take a walk together as a couple and if possible as a family. Depending on the circumstances of the day, we do this either in the morning before Mass or in the afternoon just after brunch. Whatever the time, it is always good to get outside. Walks are opportunities to talk together as well as to be silent. In the middle of our walk we usually pray the rosary. All sorts of surprising and sometimes difficult things arise during these walks, but we have never regretted taking them.
- Feast/Brunch Eating together is a very important part of our Sundays, although it is important that no one is overly burdened by meal preparation. We also take our time over our meals. We Americans can learn things from the Italians and other Europeans who take their meals in courses, one dish at a time. Meals are more leisurely and provide time for conversation and the renewing of relationship.
- Play/Games/Activities Sunday is also meant to be a time of joy and play. This can take a wide variety of expressions. We like board games, especially the kind that invite conversation. Our family’s competitive spirit can sometimes get the best of us, and our games can turn into pitched battles. Other activities might include crafts, sports, picnics, canoeing, parks, the zoo and music.
- Charity/Volunteer I remember that when I was a kid, our family would often visit the elderly on Sundays, especial-“Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ!”
ly those with no relatives. The free time of Sunday provides an opportunity to visit people in a way that is not rushed or perfunctory.
The above list is a snapshot of our family Sunday-keeping. There are many ways to incarnate Sabbath habits, and lots of room for creativity in finding the best way to live Sunday. Whatever pattern we may develop, the point is to help us to set aside the Sabbath day as a special gift to us, one with the capacity to foster our ability to truly rest, to celebrate the goodness of God and the world, and to revitalize our relationships with the most important people in our lives.
In referring to the Lord’s Day, John Paul II wrote, “Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ!” While many of us do not put it in terms of fear, I think John Paul is right. We have to face our fears in relation to how we live the Lord’s Day.
In a talk I gave years ago in Omaha to Catholic executives, the topic of the Lord’s Day came up and a CEO in the group confessed he that could not conceivably stop working on Sundays. He went to Mass and had brunch with his family, but by early afternoon was back at work. He responded that he was afraid of what would happen on Monday, afraid of not being competitive with his competitors who always work on Sunday.
His fears were real. As we move into a total work culture, many leaders and companies have found living the Lord’s Day increasingly difficult. Some companies, however, have been creative and courageous and bold in how seriously they take the Sabbath commandment. Chick-fil-A has achieved notoriety in its orientation to the Lord’s Day. It is one of the few fast food chains that is closed on Sundays. This is the company’s policy because its founder, Truett Cathy, a committed Christian, believed that all his employees need a weekly day of rest.
The striking fact about Chick-fil-A has been its success. Closing for one day out of seven means cutting out more than fourteen percent of their days of operation; and given that the day involved is Sunday, a popular day for eating out, the percentage of loss would seem even higher. Yet in 2016, Chick-fil-A’s average sales per restaurant were four times higher than those of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which is open seven days a week.
What gives Chick-fil-A its advantage? It starts with a clear purpose and a leader’s commitment to pursuing the company’s purpose in thought and action. As Cathy once explained, “We aren’t in the chicken business, we are in the people business.” And because they are in the people business, they take seriously the deepest dimensions of our humanity, which include rest. And so, as John Paul II wrote, let us rediscover Sunday, which is a grace to not only “live the demands of faith to the full, but also so that we may respond concretely to the deepest human yearnings. Time given to Christ is never time lost but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human.