What Works: A Day of Rest

Devoting a day to faith, family, friends and food


When I was growing up, Sunday was a day for leisure and family. My atheist father did his version of worship: reading the Sunday New York Times from cover to cover while listening to classical music. We had special breakfast meals. (My favorite was ham and cheese pancakes.) In the afternoon there was sports on TV or tinkering at hobbies, and then at night we watched classic Sunday night TV together — especially Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. Sometimes, when my older siblings were still around, we played family board games.

A day of rest has been part of the human routine since, perhaps, its beginning. You need look no further than Genesis 2:3, where God takes a deserved break: “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.” But like so many of the spaces between things in this hectic modern world, people nowadays seem to want to fill it in with busyness. For anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a direct commandment to “keep holy the sabbath day.” How few do!

As I said in the column “How Sweet To Do Nothing,” we need regular opportunities for recreation, as in to recreate. From Henry Ford to the present, productivity experts have agreed: people who get time off to recover are more productive in the long run than people who are worked without a break. But I’m going to say something that’s heretical in this day and age: productivity isn’t the important thing. Even if a day of rest couldn’t be proven to be good for the economy, even if it wasn’t one of the Ten Commandments, I’d be telling you to do it, because it’s good for your soul.

But if you fill your non-working hours with running to the mall, doing laundry and paying bills, you are squandering this vital spiritual tool, a true day of rest — a day in which time and productivity and material wants and needs are not an issue.

Keep it holy

I’ll admit my upbringing was not typical. My father was a tenured professor with lots of leisure time. But I have seen this pattern repeated again and again throughout my life. With the Seventh-day Adventists my sister once lived with, I remember an outdoor feast midday Sunday with the whole community. But, you might say, they weren’t part of the rat race, juggling 60-hour-a-week jobs with a busy home life. I offer, then, the evidence of my brother ¬≠and sister-in-law and their clan in Utah. Here is a family of just such people — far more type-A than I’ll ever be — but still, Sunday consists of three hours at church (service, bible study and peer group meetings back to back) followed by a midday family dinner with three generations relaxing together, catching up, sharing news and love.

You don’t have to travel to a Mormon community out west to find people practicing a serious Sabbath, though. Observant Jews take keeping Shabbes holy to an impressive level, including cooking and driving in the forbidden “work” category. These rules help keep the day to faith and family, since no one is toiling in the kitchen or straying far from home.

I live in New York City, where there are many businesses run by Orthodox Jews. I smile whenever I pass a storefront that’s sealed up tight on a busy summer Saturday, flagrantly deprioritizing material values. Even huge online businesses like B&H Photo and Adorama will not accept global online orders during the Sabbath.

But what is remarkable to secular Christians today — that businesses would turn away money just because of an ancient religious law — was commonplace just a few decades ago. When I was growing up in the Northeast, “blue laws” were still common. Certain businesses, vice-enablers like liquor stores certainly, but also things seen as frivolous like clothing stores and car dealerships, were closed by law on Sundays. Aggressive pro-business lobbying, complex issues concerning church-state separation, and a gradual erosion of spiritual priorities in our culture led to the virtual disappearance of these centuries-old laws in just a few decades.

Carving out space for the divine

You might have noticed there’s a recurring theme in the spiritual advice I offer in this column and much that you see elsewhere: it has to do with carving out space for the spiritual in this hectic material realm. This includes things you can do to bring the divine into your life, like daily meditation and spending time in nature, and things you can do to make sure it happens, like making things nonnegotiable.

Of course, one of the crimes Jesus was charged with was “working” on the Sabbath — he healed people and on at least one occasion he sanctioned his apostles gathering food. His response to this charge is worth noting: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Nevertheless, Jesus was arguing against letting law get in the way of love. He wasn’t advocating going to buy jeans and hitting the food court.  What my examples — Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, observant Jews and my Catholic practice — have in common is that they place spiritual values above material ones.

So, try honoring a real day of family and leisure. If you don’t live with or near family, or if a family day just isn’t an option, join with your faith community or close friends — friends you can just relax and be yourself with. Go to brunch after church. Short of that, just make sure that what you do enhances your connection with the spiritual dimension of life. If I have no other plans, I often head into the park and spend the next few hours strolling and birdwatching.  

On the right are some suggestions for how to bring a day of rest into your life. But if you belong to a faith that has clear guidelines about observing the Sabbath, consider simply obeying them. Like all true spiritual principles, they are good for you not just on the spiritual level but on the physical and mental as well. And share your experiences with practicing a true day of rest, or your struggles with trying to make it happen, below in comments or by email to phil AT bustedhalo (DOT) com .