Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
There’s a lot of fad diets that Christians turn to in order to help them get into the spiritual shape they desire. The fad diet spirituality of yesterday, like Prayer of Jabez and others, are like a battery: they can provide an initial spark and some energy over time, but eventually they die out like the others.
Of course as Catholics we have a pretty good roadmap for our spiritual direction and sustenance: the Sacraments.
Baptism aids us by removing original sin and entering into the resurrection of Christ. In Confirmation, we receive the ‘blow’, which enables the Holy Spirit to work in, and with, and through us. The Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith”. Our consumption of the bread is the real consumption of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. There’s not a bigger act of faith we can make. Reconciliation brings us back into communion with God from spiritual death when we make our confession, act of contrition, and perform the satisfying penance given. For those who are called to it, Holy Orders allows for a life of service and governance in the Church, a supernatural society which is able to perform the previous ordinary sacraments. Like Holy Orders, those who are called to enter into Matrimony are responsible, truly, for the formation of the world. Finally, the sacrament of Extreme Unction prepares the soul for death with a combination of the administering of Penance and the Eucharist, to include a blessing of the five senses.
Together, these make up the best formula for a life of real spiritual success. However, when I became Catholic, even though I was attending daily Mass, receiving reconciliation, and going to adoration regularly, I was missing one very serious ingredient.
I was having some friends over for a late barbecue after Mass on a Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t any special occasion but it happened that the couple we had over were lifelong Catholics who had a huge influence in my conversion to Catholicism. Anything they said, I listened. Except for this one thing. I just wouldn’t.
At that time, nobody could touch my time. No way! I have always been the sole earner in my family, fulfilling a promise to my wife to be able to stay at home and raise our family when possible. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to do that, and we’ve never lived a life of much luxury, so the principle I learned in college really set into my personal philosophy: “Time is money, and money is time.”
Nobody could touch my time, so what my friend was about to suggest didn’t fall on deaf ears, it fell on defensive ears.
“So Shaun, what are you doing later today?”
“Probably going to empty out the garage, clean it, and wash the cars, too.”
“Don’t you want to do those later in the week and enjoy your Sunday?”
“Well, I’d love that, but I have work to do during the week. My schedule is seriously full and I feel like to never get any time to do things like this until the weekend.”
“More important than your schedule, God wants you to leave this day for His purpose, which is rest.”
Argument started. But isn’t that a bit legalistic? How am I supposed to do absolutely NO work?
We went through just about every objection and counter-argument I could supply us with. We went on for about 30 or 45 minutes. Our wives… our poor wives. My poor wife! We’re sitting here having this great lunch, laughing, telling stories, sharing fun, and I’m just arguing away. No way is someone going to tell me what to do with my time, when I’m using my time for God! Right?! That’s the way I saw it. I was blogging, writing, sponsoring in RCIA, earning a Masters’ in Theology, trying to make a difference in the world—and I couldn’t clean my garage on a Sunday? Was that justice? Didn’t my work earlier in the week somehow earn me some time to keep my house clean? Really, though, doesn’t the work I do for my home fall into some sort of ‘good works’ category?
I had every excuse in the book, and I just wouldn’t hear my friend. Then he sort of reshaped his approach.
“Shaun, don’t you want the day off? If you could work all day or rest, reflect, and just have down time with your family, wouldn’t you do it?”
“Then why don’t you?”
I gave him the only real and honest answer in me. “Because I have work to do and I’m afraid that if I fall behind in any of it, it will just pile up.”
Fact is, I was much more concerned with getting things done than attempting to remain obedient to a commandment which seemed to have no place in the Bible. I told him I would think about it and I did. For an hour.
That day, I didn’t clean my garage. Was I really breaking one of the Ten Commandments? Playing it safe, I decided to give his advice a shot just for that day and check out every other Catholic resource I could to see exactly what church leaders had to say on the subject. I found this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days. (#2042)
This seems clear, that there is some rest involved with our Sundays, but what about the activities we were to avoid? The “…which could impede such sanctification of these days” seemed to be key but I still did not understand it. Looking around some more, I found resources that confirmed and agreed with my friend’s explanation. I developed a short checklist of questions to bump my desired “work” with:
Was [insert work here] completely necessary?
Does [insert work here] contribute to the sanctification of Sunday?
Is [insert work here] something I would ordinarily do on another day of the week?
No. No. Yes.
My cleaning the garage was totally unnecessary, didn’t sanctify Sunday, and was not unique to Sunday.
As much as I didn’t want to think it, if I were to proceed working on Sundays I would be seriously defying my own conscience. But what was seriously at stake was the looming question: was I really breaking one of the Ten Commandments?
Indeed I was, and my gosh, look where it is placed. It’s the third commandment, wedged right between taking God’s name in vain and honoring our father and mother. And all of these were higher on the list than commandments involving MURDER, ADULTERY, THEFT, LYING, and COVETING.
I realize that performing work on Sunday that was unnecessary and non-sanctifying was not just worse than those which are mentioned after it, but is a form of those, too. We commit a sort of murder to ourselves, pushing ourselves past the point of exhaustion (even if it might not seem like it). Becoming adulterous with God, placing our work as an idol before Him. Stealing the time that belongs to God, which is purposed for the sanctification of that day. We lie to God and ourselves about what state our heart is in. Finally, we covet ambitions and achievements.
Shocked at what I had found, I began to feel tremendous sorrow for my offense, confessed, and have worked to avoid that sin and share my lesson with those around me.
As scared as I was that I would suddenly fall behind on the work I was responsible for, the exact opposite happened. It was like a ZIP drive: nobody really knows how it works, but it does. The same happened with my time. I didn’t get more of it, but I seemed to take on more during the week. Many people ask me questions about my time and how many activities I’m involved with. I always tell them the same thing: I try as hard as I can, and I rest on Sundays.
A lot of people don’t, though. That comes down to two really important matters: 1) actually trusting God with our time; and 2) realizing it is a serious sin.
When I reflect on this lesson, the first image that comes to mind is of folding toilet paper. Odd, right? I remember a pastor explained that the Pharisees, who would often go far beyond the law to appear pious, would go to great lengths to “sanctify the Sabbath” and veer away from work. He told me that they would consider the folding of wiping paper to be a violation of the Sabbath law. Remember that Jesus’ words, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” reflect justly upon this idea.
Yes, we shouldn’t be legalistic over this matter. Is it okay to pick a tomato from your garden to enjoy with a salad? Sure. Is it okay to vacuum your floor or wash off a table because you have guests coming over? That’s fine. There’s a difference in Spring cleaning your whole house and making necessary preparations for relaxation and fellowship. Just like there’s a difference in a day-long project to build your new garden and gathering up what it takes to eat a meal.
Fast-forward about four years later. I still do my best not to work on Sundays. When I happen to forget or misjudge, and I do, I have confessed each time, as the gravity of breaking this commandment is clear.
Giving up this one simple thing got my whole life in order. I avoided the fad diets where people told me that my spiritual life would be boosted by some trick and adopted this very biblical command. If you work on Sundays, please let this be an encouragement for you to give up that burden. Believe in and participate in the Sacraments, and keep Sundays holy. Like my friend said: Don’t you want to have the day off?