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Making space for God

30 November, 1999

Have we lost the sense of leisure in our lives? Paul Andrews SJ shares some thoughts on appreciating Sunday as a day of leisure.

It is Sunday morning. As a teenager in boarding school I used to look across Dublin Bay on a Sunday morning and love the silence of the city. It was like Wordsworth’s joy on Westminster Bridge two hundred years ago: ‘And all that mighty heart is lying still’. Of course there was little rumble of traffic in Dublin in those war years: just trams and bikes, and the occasional bus.

Even so, Sunday seemed quieter than other days, and on a fine, calm morning the bay was beautiful. In the Legion of Mary we would go down the quays, look for any ship that had berthed, and offer printed fliers to the baffled sailors telling them the times of Mass in St Laurence O’Toole’s and East Wall. But there were few ships coming in, and practically no planes. In fact the whole country seemed to be an answer to St Augustine’s prayer: Give us, Lord, the peace of quiet, the peace of the sabbath, of a sabbath without any evening. Dublin in the Emergency was like one long sabbath.

It was of course the Jews who taught us to observe the sabbath, though they kept it on what we call Saturday. The book of Genesis described God as resting on the seventh day. That story at the beginning of the Bible is not history but myth, a picturesque way of conveying a vital truth: that God existed before the world or time, and is the creator of all. The notion of working hard and creatively for six days and then resting on the seventh has entered deep into human history. The sabbath, whether we celebrate it on Saturday or Sunday (or on Friday as the Muslims do), is not just a day of rest. It is also the Lord’s day, when we give a bit of time to God.

That seems like a simple and cheering idea. The father of monasticism, Saint Benedict, had a lovely phrase for it: vacare Deo; finding space for God. It means changing the tempo of our lives, taking it easy, stopping after a week’s work to see where we are going. For some people that means slowing down, if they have a demanding job on weekdays. For others, especially as we grow older, one day is much the same as another, and we do not need much slowing down.

What is it in us that takes a simple notion like ‘making space for God’, and surrounds it with laws? In Jesus’ lifetime, keeping the sabbath had become a major worry. All work was forbidden, and work was classified under thirty-nine different headings. Time and again Jesus ran into trouble with the scribes and Pharisees over keeping the sabbath. For the rabbis this was a matter of deadly sin, and of life and death. When Jesus and his disciples plucked and ate ears of corn on the sabbath as they wandered through the cornfields, the rabbis saw them as guilty of four different offences: reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. All of these were forbidden on the sabbath.

When the Pharisees threw this accusation at Jesus, he came back with a memorable phrase: ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’.

Human beings were there before any regulations or laws, and human need overrides any law. In case we start to feel superior to the scribes and Pharisees, let’s remember how we ourselves used to see Sunday. We did not fret so much about finding space for God as about two obligations: getting to Mass and avoiding servile work.

Theologians spelled out each of these obligations in more detail. ‘Getting Mass’ meant you had to be there from the Offertory at the latest. Mortal sin began with the Offertory. Missing the earlier part (which includes the reading of God’s word) was a venial sin or imperfection. As for servile work, the textbooks of moral theology devoted long chapters to its defnition.

Well, it is all a distant memory now. On Sundays we move from half-empty churches to crowded shops where staff work through most of the day of rest. It is still true that the sabbath was made for man, and many of those who work through the weekend realise this. They may not worry about breaking the sabbath, but they still feel tired to the point of exhaustion after seven days of work. They feel caught on a treadmill, and need a break.

As with so many misfortunes, there is a blessing in this change in society. Jesus constantly shifted the emphasis from law to love, and we can learn to do the same. We can learn to think of the sabbath as a time to find space for God rather than focus on the guilt of missing Mass or doing a job.
A whole generation of Irish parents have worried themselves sick over their children ignoring Church laws.

It would be more productive to focus first on making Sunday special in some way, and then on making space for God. Catholic families in Germany still make the family meal on Sunday the highest priority of the week, more important than any sport or other distraction.

As young Jesuits we used to walk up the Dublin mountains every Sunday; the change of tempo from study, and the pleasures of the hike, did something for us.

We get in touch with God in different ways: through sitting with our family over a meal, through taking time out to stop and stare at God’s creation, or to join the community of our neighbours in the ancient but simple shared worship of the Mass.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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