Thoughts on the Third Commandment
by Steven D. Greydanus
In our neighborhood, on almost any day of the week, you might walk into a supermarket and notice a conservatively dressed woman with a hat and skirt and a rather large number of children in tow, and you might make a shrewd guess that she was a conservative or orthodox Jew, and there’s a good chance that you would be right.
On almost any day, that is, except the Sabbath. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, those women and their children vanish. The kosher aisle is deserted, the kosher deli shuttered. Conservative and orthodox Jews take the Sabbath seriously.
The Muslim women are easier to spot. The women wear the hijab or head scarf, sometimes with Western clothes, sometimes with the abaya (cloak); a few wear the naqib or face veil. (Years ago, the first time one of our younger boys saw that, his eyes widened and he asked if she was a ninja!) You might see them at the supermarket any day of the week — but not so much on Fridays, their day of prayer. (Friday in Muslim tradition is not an official “day of rest,” but in practice it is often observed in a similar way.)
Sunday, of course, is a different story.
A few decades ago the stores were all closed on Sundays. Even if they were open, they weren’t busy. Now, of course, the stores are mobbed on Sundays. It might be the biggest shopping day of the week. Even churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often treat Sunday as no different from any other day, except for the hour or so we spend in church.
It’s true that Sunday rest in the United States has historically been colored by Puritan piety and legalism. It was a matter of avoiding certain forbidden activities. If you’ve read the Little House books, as I have to my kids any number of times, you may recall that Laura was not allowed to run or shout or engage in noisy play on Sundays, and in her grandfather’s day even laughter and smiling were not allowed. Only reading the Bible and the catechism were allowed. This is not Catholic piety.
Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the Lord’s Day (CCC §2184ff):
The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.
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. 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.
What does this look like in practice?
I don’t have any revelatory answers. I don’t want to judge anyone else. I’m trying to figure it out myself. (I gave the example of grocery shopping above, not because there’s anything in the Catechism or other official church teachings forbidding grocery shopping on Sundays, but because it’s a relatively visible example.) I would welcome comments and thoughts as well as your own practices in the combox.
One thing Suz and I have tried to do in our family is to try to make Sunday mornings before 10:30am Mass a time of preparation for Mass, nothing more. For me, that generally means, for example, staying away from social media, except perhaps to tweet an inspirational message or something. (At least, that’s the plan. Whether I always stick to it is another question.) The kids don’t play games, watch TV or read books for entertainment.
I know good Catholic families for whom Sunday morning is often co-opted by kids’ sports commitments. I get that sports is really important to some families, and demand for access to sports facilities is high, so sports teams need to get access whenever they can. To be involved in sports is thus a serious commitment to make yourself available early in the morning, late in the evening, on any day of the week, to potentially drive significant distances on a regular basis, etc.
That, in part, is why we’ve never done organized sports. Speaking only for myself, I could never make that commitment. Our family’s Sunday morning ritual is our priority; we will defend and maintain that to the best of our ability. Obviously if Suz goes back to nursing work someday, that may be compromised. But we’ve tried to structure our lives in such a way that church is not something we fit into our personal plans on Sunday; our personal plans have to be fitted around our plans for Mass.
Obviously there are exceptions here and there. Occasionally we’re traveling on a Sunday morning. I have yet to do a film festival, but on very rare occasions I’ve gone to a film screening on a Sunday morning while the rest of the family went to Mass.
But just as Sunday is a day set apart in the week, some Sundays and other days in the year are set aside in a sense more solemn than usual. Of these, Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, has the greatest place, along with the preceding days of Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday).
Short of a medical emergency or some other dire crisis, there is no way I’m not going to be at our parish on Easter Sunday morning. Just this year I passed on a movie screening that fell on Holy Thursday. I’ve seen Catholic families attend non-religious cultural events on Good Friday evening. I don’t understand that at all.
What about Sunday afternoons and evenings? An observation from a friend I’ve always found interesting is that what constitutes “leisure” can depend on what the rest of your week looks like. If you sit at a desk all week, and every evening coming home you give a rueful glance at the neglected garden you’d love to spend an hour or two with, digging in the dirt might constitute leisure for you, whereas it obviously wouldn’t be leisure for a landscaper.
Not doing my 9 to 5 day job on Sundays isn’t a problem for me — but my life involves a lot of reading, writing and watching movies, and I don’t think I could or would want to structure my life so that I didn’t do any of those things on Sundays.
Going forward, as it happens, it’s going to include even more of those things, since, as of this week — here’s one of the announcements I teased in last week’s post — in addition to my current work for the Register and other venues, I’ll also be writing regularly for the Boston Globe’s new Catholicism-focused website Crux. (My first piece at Crux is on the saint film Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe, starring Christoph Waltz, new on DVD from Ignatius Press. Check it out!)
Even so, I will continue to try to avoid writing for money on Sunday. I don’t know that I can swear off writing for my diaconal classes, but that’s in the Lord’s service and I hope it will enhance rather than detract from my observance of the Lord’s Day. And if I watch a movie, I might try to pick something I can watch with the family rather than by myself.
Those are a few examples of some ways I try make Sunday different. How about you?
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