Here follows a revision of a talk I gave on the Sabbath rest and the proper understanding of leisure.
Holy Leisure and the Sabbath
The Sabbath and holy leisure is one of my favourite topics, because it’s one of the most apparent ways God has helped me in my life. The Sabbath is a day of rest, of reflexion, of slowing down and listening to find out how God is going to help you die. While Friday is the traditional day of penance and self-denial, the Sabbath is actually one of the main ways God helps us die to ourselves and to the world, a day that the radical mercy of the Cross can transform you more into who God created you to be. That is what this day is for. And it’s one of God’s greatest gifts to us, because while it is a day of rest, it is by no means a pause in your life. The day of rest is the day that the other six days were made for.
If you’re not familiar with how to honour the Sabbath, or you haven’t heard of the concept of holy leisure, then trust me, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of holy leisure until over two years ago, and honouring the Sabbath was hardly a priority for me. At this time I had begun to actively seek and listen to God, and His mercy in my life was apparent, but I hadn’t yet healed from my past life. A little backstory—you don’t need much—six years ago I cut myself because I was afraid I was going to get a B in a class. Five years ago I moved 2000 miles away because I hated my life and I hated that everyone knew me—I just wanted to be someone else. Four years ago I moved back home, but my anxiety was so bad that I once burst into tears after taking a wrong turn while driving. And to give you some perspective, this has been going uphill, more or less. I found a good therapist, and a good community, but one by one it seemed that they all disappeared, and last year I was alone—again. The difference was that this time, I’d begun actively seeking God, reading His Word, going to daily Mass. Even so, I was miserable. I hated myself. Every morning started off sobbing in my room alone. I worried constantly, if I was good enough, if God was proud of me. I hadn’t been suicidal or wanted to cut myself for about a year—a desire that I’d had every day for over a year since the last time I cut myself—but I felt those desires come creeping back, and honestly, I have never been so afraid. I was desperate. It was at this time that I first had the beauty and goodness of the Sabbath rest explained to me. So, I went out on a limb, and tried it.
The relief was unimaginable. I’ve always been ambitious, constantly thinking ahead and trying to make sure I do everything I feel like I have to. And my mind was always moving a thousand miles an hour, every mistake and worry present at once. But that first Sunday that I didn’t work or do any homework, and made sure I got enough sleep, I remember this overwhelming sense of freedom—freedom from all the things I thought were the most important things in my life like school, my job, my accomplishments, how smart or fit I was, or if I was loved by family and friends. It was freedom not because I stopped doing anything, but because I started doing the most important thing. I started letting go of my own will, my own stubbornness, and looking at God. If I were to give you a one-sentence answer for what holy leisure looks like, it’s to stop everything and take a long, uninterrupted moment to look at God.
In Psalm 131, David puts it in these words:
‘O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast, like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time forth and for evermore.’
This stopping, looking, and resting in the gaze of the Lord is a gift given to us at all times, but especially through honouring the Sabbath.
Keep the sabbath holy
Most of us are aware of the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. But honestly, that’s one of the least important commandments to us, right? Maybe we think, ‘Well, that means going to church on Sunday,” and we acknowledge that as important, and maybe we’ve done that pretty well. And while that’s part of it, it meant much more than that to the first Christians, many of whom had already been celebrating the Sabbath according to the Old Testament law. So to understand what it means for us now, I’m gonna go back to its genesis.
In the beginning there was nothing but God, and everything that is exists by Him and through Him. So let that sink in for a moment, because that should make us eternally thankful. Every good thing that’s ever happened to you, every joy, anything that made you laugh, every beautiful and sunny day or quiet and rainy day, every good relationship and all the people you love—God made them. And when He made everything, He did it in a certain order. He created the stars and planets, and the ocean and earth; but then He created living things, and He created them in an order of intelligence, ending with man. St. John Paul II said that man is ‘the crown of creation.’1 That’s you! You look at everything around you, all of the stars and the ocean and the sun, and you are infinitely more amazing than all of those things put together. And after God made man and woman on the sixth day, He decided that there would be one more day, on which He would rest. When it says He rested, it means that He enjoyed us, and we enjoyed Him. He completed us, and now was the time for us to fulfill the reason for our existence: To be with Him.
That is the heart of the Sabbath. That is holy leisure. To be with God. To be holy just means to be set apart. So God worked—that is, he created new and beautiful things—for six days. But the seventh, the greatest day, was set apart simply so that we could be with Him and just ‘be.’ You know how you can do things with someone you love, like watch a movie, play soccer, study, or talk? But then sometimes you have that person where you don’t need to do anything, or say anything, but you can just be with them, and that’s enough. And when you do talk or do something, the most delightful thing isn’t really the words or what you’re doing—it’s that you’re with them. That is what holy leisure is, and it’s especially set aside on Sunday.
Leisure and Renewal
Christians normally celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday because it is the day we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, through which we are made into a new creation. It is the first day of the week, symbolising newness; but has also long been called the eighth day, symbolising eternity and consummation, fulfillment, of time in perfect newness and happiness with God. It is not an escape from time and from life: It is the end goal toward which our lives and all of time and creation are oriented. The first two ways that we honour the Sabbath are by thanksgiving and by looking toward Heaven. God issued the commandment to honour the Sabbath just after rescuing the Israelites from slavery, and this reminds us of how He saved us from Hell, from eternal isolation and emptiness. But He issued it also before the Israelites had made it to the Promised Land, what to them was paradise. We have an infinitely greater paradise to look forward to. And that is the second purpose of the Sabbath—to look forward to Heaven.
We can easily get caught up in what we do, what we accomplish. But the most important thing, above all else, is to come to better know God, so we can desire Him and love Him more. Jesus says, ‘For this is eternal life, to know the Father, and to know the One whom He sent, Jesus Christ.’2
So how does holy leisure helps us to know God? A helpful hint from our friends the ancient Greeks is an understanding of their word for leisure—skholḗ, from which we get the word ‘school.’ That seems ironic to us, but for them, leisure, or free time, was to be filled with learning and studying. Now, they had a very different education system from ours, so for us it’s more helpful to think of it as recreation, that is, re-creation, which we get from the Latin ‘to refresh’ or ‘renew’. And that is the simplest way we should consider leisure.
So how do we spend time rebuilding ourselves? Anything that is creative and not wearisome can help rebuild us—writing, reading and learning for learning’s sake, or painting. For me, it changes every week. Sometimes, I spend a whole afternoon reading a good book, rediscovering God’s beauty in good literature. Sometimes I take a few hours on Sunday to have a long conversation with someone over coffee, or to write letters to my friends, investing in relationships and rediscovering God’s goodness in others and in His love. Or sometimes I spend time studying the Word—which is necessary to do anyway, but I mean spending a couple hours reading Scripture and pondering it and studying it. This is one of main ways we come to know God. And in knowing God, we come to know who we were meant to be, for we are made in His image.
The sabbath safeguards against vice and despair
While we are to give thanks for God saving us, we need to remember why He saved us. This life isn’t it. Everything Jesus did for us, and everything the Holy Spirit is doing now, is so that we can rest in Heaven forever with God our Father in the union of the Trinity. This is also one of the reasons we are not to work on the Sabbath—because while we ought to work on earth, our work is never an end in and of itself. Today is a reminder that everything we accomplish during the week is only for God, to serve Him. Its worth is not in how well we did it or how much of an effect it has, but in whether or not it was done in love of God. And everything we didn’t accomplish does not make us worth less, because Sunday is a day to rest in His mercy, which is what Heaven is. Every day is a gift, a gift from God to us, which we then give back to Him. When we make the Sabbath holy, we set it apart for Him. But really, He first set it apart for us. Jesus says, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’3 It’s a gift because it’s a taste of Heaven.
So it’s a time to take rest from the things that diminish our strength and energy, like our jobs and homework. But it goes beyond that. It’s not ‘vegging’, sitting in our rooms all day on Netflix. We live in an extremely noisy world. Our phones, TVs, and computers are always grasping for our attention, distracting us. A lot of us also tend to be very busy. We have class, work, sports, relationships, friends, family, church activities, and a hundred other little things that seem to crop up from every which way so we can’t keep our minds fixed on one thing for even an hour. Now, all those things I mentioned are good things. But they are not what we’re made for. We’re made for intimate friendship and union with God. So we can’t make those things the end purpose of our lives. This, I think, is one of the reasons mental illnesses like depression are so prevalent today, at least it was part of it for me. And I see something like depression even among those who don’t have it. Depression is lethargy. It’s being tired of existence, of the thousands of things that consume our energy. But what we’re really tired of is ourselves. Blaise Pascal said that ‘[a]ll of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ To put it another way, when you look at yourself, really look at yourself, and you don’t like yourself, what’s your first response? Is it to sit quietly in contemplation? Or are you already reaching for your phone? Technology is not good or bad. But it can be used for good or bad things, and we have to be careful not to get distracted from Heaven, because Heaven is actually more real than this world, because it’s where God dwells, and He is the most real reality—He is reality.
Our society has gotten caught up in a lot of lies, and what’s worse is it’s difficult to think clearly and quietly in the fog of noise. In his book The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Saráh wrote:
‘From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God. (p. 56)
And Satan and his demons want to use these distractions to make us comfortable, and to keep us from being watchful. Because when we’re distracted, or, worse, when we’re satisfied with this world, we are the most vulnerable to temptations. That is why the Sabbath is one of our greatest defences against temptation. For when Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart for three days to worship God and feast and fellowship, Pharaoh denied it and ordered them to work more. Business, work, activities, sports, clubs—we often use these to distract us from our true potential, which is union with God. And anything can be a distraction—even reading or prayer, if we’re focussed on ourselves instead of on God. The Sabbath is a defence against temptation.
Also, I mentioned depression, but if you have a pretty good opinion of yourself, that’s no better than self-hatred. In fact, to hate yourself and to think you’re fine as you are both come from pride. Because ‘[p]ride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.’4 We ought not to take ourselves too seriously. We ought to take God very seriously. When we truly look at ourselves, and look at Him, the proper response is not to distract ourselves because of our shame—nor is it to neglect time with Him because we think we’re quite fine as we are. It is to humbly admit that we can’t do all those things we’re concerned with on our own, nor will they make us good enough. And then it is to run to Him, who is already right there, and cling to Him in love.
Make room for joy
If you want to re-create something, you first have to take a good look at it, get rid of what you don’t need, and start adding what you want it to have. So we first have to take away what keeps us from resting, or what distracts us from ourselves and from God or others. This also helps rebuild us, because in celebrating the Sabbath, one of the main ways it has helped rebuild me into the man God created me to be is by replacing my own selfishness and pride with virtues, especially prudence, faith, and courage. Because to honour the Sabbath requires prudence. St. Faustina wrote, ‘Virtue without prudence is not virtue at all. We should often pray to the Holy Spirit for this grace of prudence. Prudence consists in discretion, rational reflection, and courageous resolution. The final decision is always up to us. We must decide; we can and ought to seek advice and light…’5 You have to plan ahead. I can’t go out on Friday nights sometimes, because I have to do homework or other things I would otherwise move to Sunday. I count the Sabbath as sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. This is the Hebrew tradition, which I learned from the Catholic theologian who first taught me how to honour the Sabbath. And still within the Church’s liturgy the day begins at sundown, symbolising the redemption of all of creation unto the new and eternal dawn through Christ the morning star, Who is the Light and Whose return we expect and hope for. Practically, it also ensures I get enough sleep on the Sabbath, because Saturday night is included. Otherwise, if I try to get enough sleep Sunday night, I may feel I must stay up too late Saturday night working on things. This way, if need be, I can study and do what needs to be done late Sunday night, having rested well the night before. And sometimes that also is a sacrifice, to stay up late Sunday night. And periods of time may come when we rarely get much sleep throughout the week. I’ve had weeks like this. But the strength God gave me on the Sabbath when I rested was just enough for every week. Which leads us to faith and courage. It requires faith in God, to trust Him to help you do later whatever work you want to do on Sunday. And it requires courage to make sacrifices throughout the week, of sleep, or of going out, so that you can give that time to God on the Sabbath. To honour the Sabbath is to thank God for helping you get to where you are, and to trust Him to provide for you everything else you need for the rest of the week. This is why the day of rest helps us die to ourselves, for we have to sacrifice things during the week to be able to honour the Sabbath. And it helps us die to the world, to give up on the Sabbath the things the world values, like work and self-advancement, to look forward to the world to come, which is more real than this one will ever be.
To rebuild ourselves, our Sabbaths ought to be rejuvenating. One of the best ways to ensure this is to cultivate a love of silence. One of my friends spends the first two hours after breakfast on Sunday alone in her room with a cup of tea, and she just sits and thinks. You don’t have to do that, but when’s the last time you just sat and thought, had a normal conversation with God, or just recollected or journaled? Or the last time you went on a walk in the woods or around a lake? During the week, I use meals as a time to study, so one of my favourite things to do on the Sabbath is to bake or cook, maybe with some music or maybe just quietly, and then just eat a meal and enjoy it. I don’t watch anything or read anything, and I don’t rush it. Sometimes I use it as a time to talk with a saint I’m close to about random stuff on my mind, but mostly I just enjoy doing one thing at a time—a rarity in a lot of our lives. This is a perfect time to enjoy meals with friends and cultivate good conversation and joy in the company of others. I also never watch anything, unless it’s with someone, and I don’t use the internet, nor do I text unless it’s to my family or someone I’m meeting that day (or to send an encouraging message to someone). But I started in smaller ways—I never listen to anything the first car ride of the day, and I never listen to anything on the way to Mass. From there, I gradually found ways to make my life quieter, especially on Sunday. Because I am quite busy, and this is my day with God. It is truly the least we can do, to spend a few hours alone with Him. Silence allows us to get better acquainted with ourselves, and to get better acquainted with God. St. Faustina wrote that God teaches us much more about Himself in the quietness of our hearts than through many books.6
What am I made for?
In removing distractions and making time for rest, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect and look toward Heaven. Heaven, in its truest sense, is perfect, intimate being with God forever. In 2 Peter, He says, ‘His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.’7 A lot of us focus on trying to be good enough. We try to be virtuous, kind, and loving—and we should. But these things, Peter says, come from knowledge of Jesus Christ. And Peter says that through His promises we can hope to partake in His divine nature, also translated as ‘to share in His divinity.’ This is heaven. This is why, as St. Gregory the Great declares: ‘For us, the true Sabbath is the person of our Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ.’8 So this is the purpose of everything we do, not to become perfect in a human sense, but to be filled with the love of God and become like Him. ‘Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’9 Our purpose is to be great saints, to be god-like. Hope is the virtue that conquers our fear and sloth—the aversion to greatness, especially through business and distraction—through courage and magnanimity—that is, greatness of soul. For hope is the desire for God, and trust in His grace to accomplish His will in us. The missionary martyr Jim Elliot said, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’10Those things we’re afraid to give up in order to honour the Sabbath are not our purpose. God is. Being with the One who never changes, who always loves. You were made, beautifully, and wonderfully, for Heaven.
‘At the evening of life, we will be judged on our love.’~ St. John of the Cross
Now, I understand that maybe you have to work to support yourself, and there’s no way you can get work off on Sunday. And sometimes we may be obligated to do homework on Sunday. God is not a slave-driver. He knows our situation, and our weaknesses. But as far as studying on Sunday goes, this should be a rarity, nor a normal occurrence. As an example, one Summer I took a 10-credit-hour course, a year of Japanese in 8 weeks. That’s 4 hours’ lecture, Monday through Friday, and a week of homework daily, and often three exams in one week. I also worked part-time. But God did not make me study on Sunday. Even when I had an exam on Monday morning, and could not study at all on the weekend because of other commitments, He let me get 100% on that test. Now, I’m not saying I have more responsibilities than you. But I say this to make it clear that I have had a lot of responsibilities, yet God gave me this gift because He is generous, and I asked Him. Sabbath rest is a grace. If we ask for it, He will give it in whatever way we need—‘for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’
Lastly, the Sabbath does not exclude acts of mercy, kindness, and service to others. So it’s okay to do charity work at a food kitchen, or to help a friend move, or even just to do the dishes so your roommates or family don’t have to. These not only make you like Christ in kindness and loving others as He does, but they allow others to celebrate the Sabbath more easily because of you. As St. Faustina says, ‘My true rest is in the service of my neighbor.’11
The Sabbath is one of the most important commandments because it is one of our greatest defences against temptation, and the most sacred time for prayer. It allows us to forget ourselves and the worries of this world, and focus on the only Unchanging One, who is Mercy Itself, Who wants to be with us in a more intimately joyful way than we can imagine. He is that toward which we look and hope. Each hour we ought to anticipate Mass and Holy Communion; each day, we ought to anticipate the Sabbath; and each moment, we ought to anticipate Heaven. That is what the Sabbath reminds us of, and allows us to do. To close, it is as St. Augustine wrote:
‘Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou “resistest the proud,” – yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee. Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first, to call on Thee, or to praise Thee; and likewise to know Thee, or to call upon Thee.
‘Oh! how shall I find rest in Thee? Who will send Thee into my heart to inebriate it, so that I may forget my woes, and embrace Thee my only good? What art Thou to me? Have compassion on me, that I may speak. What am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and unless I give it Thee art angry, and threatenest me with great sorrows? Is it, then, a light sorrow not to love Thee? Alas! alas! tell me of Thy compassion, O Lord my God, what Thou art to me. Say unto my soul, “I am thy salvation.” So speak that I may hear. Behold, Lord, the ears of my heart are before Thee; open Thou them, and say unto my soul, “I am thy salvation.” When I hear, may I run and lay hold on Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die, lest I die, if only I may see Thy face.’12
- Dies Domini, Chapter 1, Paragraph 11.
- John 17:3
- Mark 2:27
- Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
- Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, paragraph 1106.
- Diary, 584.
- 2 Peter 1:3-4
- “Verum autem sabbatum ipsum redemptorem nostrum Iesum Christum Dominum habemus”: Epist. 13, 1: CCL 140A, 992.
- 1 John 3:2-3.
- Diary, 163.