The Sabbath and the culture of the family home

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One Sunday, I was at the park with my children. They were busy enjoying themselves. I was doing the usual things: pushing swings, making sure the youngest didn’t fall off a ladder, sitting on a bench whenever I could. Twenty minutes in or so, I started hurrying them along in whatever they were doing. As kids often do, they went at their own pace, despite my wishes. I found myself getting annoyed because I could just feel we were going to be late. And then it occurred to me: we don’t have anywhere to be — there is no reason to rush. It’s not that I had forgotten that our schedule was free; I knew it the whole time. The fact is I wasn’t rushing them because I thought we had something else to do. I was rushing them because I couldn’t help it. I was so used to rushing — and so used to rushing them — that rushing had become my default mode.

I remember well that day at the park because that’s when I started thinking about what time is for. I don’t mean that in some abstract, philosophical sense — I mean it in a very personal and practical way: What is my time for? What is my family’s time for? How does the way we treat time affect us?

These things rushed to my mind again recently when a friend told me that he and his wife counted the number of things on their family calendar the previous week. There were more than three dozen events for their four children. Their kids are thriving and my friends are very committed, thoughtful parents, but they still found themselves wondering: What are we doing? What is this all for?

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Underneath my feeling and my friends is, I believe, a hidden sadness. All the activity that, more often than not, fills most days and weeks — with all that rushing between different tasks and yet feeling like you’re always a little bit behind — has an effect on us. We feel powerless because the calendar, the schedule, the flow of things and the pace is just so powerful.

I call this “sadness” quite intentionally because I relate it to the vice acedia, which is a spiritual sadness. Acedia is the vice typically associated with sloth, which seems to have more to do with lethargy than activity. But in modern life, we have stuffed ourselves on unfeeling, incessant activity. The thing that someone like me gets hooked on is not just one activity or another, but the need to move quickly and find the next thing. Everything — even the best of things — can be made to feel like “just one more thing to do.” I think this is why so many parents have the sense of being run by a schedule, more than running a schedule.

This is neatly set up for me to now say something like: “The key is to do fewer things and stop rushing so much.” I guess I could say that, and there is some wisdom in it. But I have something else in mind because just cutting things out is a negative action, rather than a positive statement. Only with a positive statement can we answer the question of what it is time for — what my time is for, what my family’s time for.

I started taking this seriously that one Sunday at the park. It is perhaps providential that my dissatisfaction with my own rushing began on a Sunday because I think the key to getting time right — to making a positive statement about time — is about getting Sunday right.

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‘The Sabbath World’

In her book “The Sabbath World” (Random House, $17), the Jewish author Judith Shulevitz writes, “Time has an architecture, and that architecture has the power to affect us as deeply as the architecture of space does.” That’s an astonishing claim. It means that the environment that shapes us is not just the built or natural world that surrounds us, but also the schedule that we keep, intentionally or unintentionally. This includes the schedules we keep for others: the demands we make on their time, whether because they are under our authority (as are our children) or because social conditions that benefit some come at the expense of others, impacting how they must use their time. Shulevitz thus speaks of the “social morality of time.”

She goes on to say that “The Sabbath is an organizing principle. It is a socially reinforced temporal structure.” She means that observing the Sabbath commits her in a very particular way to what she will do and prioritize this one day each week. But more than that, she means that observing the Sabbath orients and organizes the rest of her days during the week, while it also changes what she would demand or expect from others. At minimum, it means that all other work and activities must be held within the bounds of six days, while it also means that the other days are in some way a preparation for and an outflowing of the one day that is intentionally different from all the rest: the Sabbath.

I learned the importance of what Shulevitz is talking about through a man I have come to consider the patron saint of time: St. Louis Martin, the father of Thérèse of Lisieux. He was a busy and modestly successful man, yet a man for whom Sunday came first. His and his family’s time flowed from and returned to the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day — the fulfillment of the Sabbath (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2175-76).

Louis was a clockmaker: he sold and fixed clocks. He knew a lot about time. He lived in a time of growing commerce. He labored for his customers and he was surrounded by competitors. The way things were going in his day, it would have been natural and expected for him to do what everyone else like him was doing: extend his working hours and keep his shop open each day, including Sunday.

But Louis’ understanding of time went deeper than the demands of commerce. What he placed first as the primary and most positive thing was observing the Lord’s Day. On Sundays, he walked, he prayed, he played with his children. He intentionally engaged in the works of mercy, specifically almsgiving. It was not just that he was taking a break from marketplace competition and hustle-and-bustle of the working world just to get back to it later; more than that, he was making a statement about what all the work is ultimately for: To remember and enjoy the day of liberation. For Israel, their Sabbath recalls freedom from slavery in Egypt; for a Christian like Louis, Sunday is the celebration of our freedom from sin and death in Christ.

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Like and unlike Louis

That Sunday in the park, I was not working. In that way, you could say I was like Louis. The difference between us is this: I had allowed myself to be formed by the busyness of the world and I felt the effects of that even when I was not working. Louis, however, was intentionally formed by his primary observance of the Lord’s Day and felt the effects of that formation in his workshop and throughout the rest of the days of the week. He organized his workday according to the focus and intentionality he drew from the Sabbath: his days began and ended in prayer, with periods of prayer spread throughout. He made his workshop into a place where he paid close attention to his craft, focusing deeply and growing in skill. With his wife Zélie, he cultivated a home where time was marked by the liturgical cycle — a different rhythm of time — that preserves the dignity of creation and the dignity of those commanded to keep holy the Sabbath.

I find myself especially drawn to Louis’s commitment to the works of mercy on Sunday. In tending to the needs of those who were suffering in some way, Louis placed a priority on freeing others from their hardships and restoring them — in some measure — to the freedom of enjoying life. Sunday was, for him, a practice of communion.

For someone like me, to practice the Lord’s Day well requires both preparation and intentionality. Were I to just wake up on Sunday morning and say “It’s Sunday! Today will be different!” — I would more likely than not end up slipping back into what I experienced at the park that day: the well-ingrained habits of rushing and worrying about expediency I develop the other days of the week would control me. Observing Sunday well requires daily commitment by putting the most important things in life on the calendar first and then making all the other things fit around them, if they can. Those most important things include prayer, face-to-face conversation, some period of real leisure, time dedicated to the needs of others, etc. I think that is how the Sabbath becomes an “organizing principle”: it determines what is non-negotiable, and everything else has to fit accordingly.

I know there is more to say about time. I know I could write more about our modern schedules. I know you may want me to say something about the overextending sports’ culture or things like that. But I have chosen to briefly focus on the observance of the Sabbath because I think that is actually the key to redeeming time. I think it is the first and most important step — one that requires a considerable amount of focus and intentionality — which then allows us to begin rediscovering the gift of time all the time.

Sincerely,

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is Professor of the Practice in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative and the Inklings Project, and hosts the podcast Church Life Today.