Saturday, January 2, 2010

Working on Sunday: At Growing the Christian Interior Life

Holy days of obligation and servile work came up, briefly, in yesterday's post. (The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: Yeah, It's Kind of a Big Deal)

Again, holy day of obligation is "a day when Catholics must attend Mass and refrain from servile work, and Episcopalians must take Communion" (holy day of obligation, Princeton's WordNet).

That's clear enough. (WordNet is a secular resource, by the way - and a pretty good online dictionary)

But what's "servile work?" That's a little more complicated:
"(submissive or fawning in attitude or behavior) 'spoke in a servile tone'; 'the incurably servile housekeeper'; 'servile tasks such as floor scrubbing and barn work'
"(relating to or involving slaves or appropriate for slaves or servants) 'Brown's attempt at servile insurrection'; 'the servile wars of Sicily'; 'servile work' "
(servile, Princeton's WordNet)
Going really literal, I could say that since I'm not a slave (my surname may mean "slave," but that's another topic), and I'm not particularly submissive in behavior, and don't work in a barn or scrub floors, I can work on Sundays.

I could say something like that, but I think that'd be missing the point.

Checking around, online, I get the idea that most people who use the term "servile work" assume that everybody else understands what it means. Or, maybe it's a term that's too rarely used to warrant much discussion. Either way, I didn't come up with anything that was from what I consider a reliable source.

"Working on Sunday:" That I found discussions of.

Why Sunday? Why Not Worship on the Sabbath?

Since I'm a Catholic, I recognize Saturday as the sabbath. And Sunday is the big day for worship each week.
"Jesus rose from the dead 'on the first day of the week.'104 Because it is the 'first day,' the day of Christ's Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the "eighth day" following the sabbath,105 it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ's Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord's Day (he kuriake hemera, dies dominica)-Sunday:
"We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day [after the Jewish sabbath, but also the first day] when God, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.106"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2174)
Which is why dates running down the left side of most calendars in this country are Sundays. It's the first day of the week.

Okay: That's why we have Mass on Sunday. Every other day of the week, too: but Sunday's is the one we're supposed to get to, if it's at all practical.

What's the score on "servile work" on Sunday?

Working on Sunday: The Catholic Church has Rules About That

One thing that American culture's stereotypes almost have right about Catholics is that we have rules. Lots of them. If you're looking for a church that preaches salvation through warm fuzzies and feeling spiritual, without a lot of practical restrictions on your behavior: This isn't it.

(I think it's a really good idea to get on board with the Catholic Church, but I can't 'make' you. And wouldn't try. My job is to deliver the message. What you do with it is your responsibility.)

As a Catholic, I recognize that there are - when you boil it all down - two rules:
"...You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind...." and "...The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'..."
(excerpt from Matthew 22:36-40)
I suppose they're more 'principles' than 'rules.'

Applying those two basic principles to what people do 24/7/365 that makes for all the rules.

So, Catholics have a lot of rules to follow. I must be some kind of conformist, right?

Hardly. I've written about that before: "I'm Not Awed by Authority, I Don't Conform Easily: So I Became a Catholic?!" (September 19, 2009). I don't particularly like conforming to some leader's idea of what is and isn't appropriate. But when the leader is God, I think it's a good idea to follow.
Sunday, the Sabbath, and All That
A little more, about why Sunday is a big deal:
"Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ's Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man's eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ:107
"Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord's Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death.108
"The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship 'as a sign of his universal beneficence to all.'109 Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people."
(Catechism, 2175, 2176)
So, what's that "outward, visible, public, and regular worship" of God? Going to church on Sunday is part of the picture, but there's more. Quite a lot more, actually: there's a lot more to that part of the catechism than these excerpts.
'Don't Work on Sunday' - Isn't that Kind of Negative?
The idea that we shouldn't do servile work on Sunday isn't as negative as it sounds. It isn't so much an instruction to not work, as it is an exhortation to make sure that the important work (in another sense of the word) gets done:
"Just as God 'rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,'121 human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord's Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.122

"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.123 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.
"The charity of truth seeks holy leisure; the necessity of charity accepts just work.124
"Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life."
(Catechism, 2184-2186)
"Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life."

Has a sort of monastic feel, doesn't it? Pretty good advice, though.

I started this post to help me follow up on an impression I'd gotten yesterday, that I ought to review my Sunday habits and the idea of "servile work."

I haven't done "servile work" in one sense for a long time. I'm a writer and artist, so my work is mostly digging up information, sorting out ideas, and creating images. I love what I do. Which made it easy for me to let quite a bit of work spill over into Sunday.

Tracking down facts and arranging ideas didn't feel like "work," since it's something I like doing. And I'm not too worried about what I've done, since I see the myriad facets of creation as the work of God. I could rationalize that I've been 'reflecting' on God all the time, and just go ahead with business as usual.

That's probably not the best idea. Like I said, I'm not too worried: but I also think it's time for re-tooling my habits.

I've already been holding off writing the Sunday post for my Sauk Centre Journal until after sunset on Sunday. And, as of this week, I've gotten the three daily posts for another blog's Sunday quota written and programmed for posting Sunday morning.

But that's just 'not working:' making room for something more important.

I've put "Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life" on a sheet of paper and set it at (sitting) eye level, to the left of my desk.

That, alone, won't make a difference: but now I'll be reminded of what Sunday's about at fairly frequent intervals. And, I trust, see to it that I hang out with my family, reflect on the wonder and glory of God, and work at growing this Christian's interior life.

'Christian interior life' sheet, fresh from the printer. January 2, 2010.

Posts about work, rules, or whatever: More:


Unknown said...

Very nice reading. I was confused on the term 'serville work' myself. Not sure if I still completely understand it.

Sundays, my wife and I do cook for the week ahead, and for our meals on Sunday as well. And cleaning the floors, washing clothes etc etc.

We both work, so it is hard to find time on other days of the week, though, not impossible.

I will try, only with God's grace to clean up my Sunday activities for him and for my family.

God bless you!

Brian H. Gill said...


Thanks for the comment - and may God bless you, too.

Scheduling can be - challenging - these days. I've reached a point in my life where I'm setting my own hours: but it hasn't always been like that.

One of the Doctors of the Church, a Carmelite nun named Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, was recognized as a saint in part because she did 'servile work.'

It wasn't the work that was special: it was her attitude. "She took her assignments in the convent of Lisieux as ways of manifesting her love for God and for others." (from "St. Therese and Her Little Way," Society of the Little Flower (

As for what "servile" means? Yeah, I'm not entirely clear on that, myself. I understand what the dictionary says all right - it's how the term applies to my life that isn't at all clear to me.

But I've been living with uncertainty all my life. And the Catholic Church has been getting by without knowing all the answers for much longer. (I rambled on about that in "Baptism of Desire: Or, Two Thousand Years of Not Knowing Everything")

Unknown said...

Working on Sunday is a hard one for me. Not because I miss mass because I don't, but because that my job is weird.

I work in a store where they go on seniority and If I want Sunday off so I can't work ever on it then they take hours away from me (You have to put on your schedule "A" for Available anytime or else you are "R" restricted) and its impossible for me to afford.

I have looked for other jobs but the wages are so low...I'm stuck.
I'm not a professional either. So at the moment until something better comes along. I'm stuck.

This issue caused me depression for a while and almost made me want to give up the Catholic faith. However I have to hang in there. Thank you.

Brian H. Gill said...


My sympathies.

About working on Sunday: I'm no expert, but I've yet to run into a teaching of the Catholic Church that doesn't take the real world into account.

I've had jobs where I had to work - when the boss said I had to work. It happens.

Thanks for your kind words.

There's another post in this blog that might, or might not, have something useful about work, God, and what we do with our time: "Work, "Giving Back," and a Saint."

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