Now that we are almost midway into June, many of us are either taking some time off or planning on doing so this summer. Our vacation may not be much longer than an extended weekend spent at home in the garden or out on the water or it may be for several weeks or even months traveling across the globe. But whatever particular form it takes, we need to take time off from our daily routine of work in order to be fully human.
Part of what makes us human is the deep satisfaction we experience when we have done a good days work, whatever that work might be. I believe that all human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, are called by nature to participate in the creative work of God in the world, whether that work is designing buildings or waiting on tables. Even, when as workers we are motivated primarily by duty, obligation or necessity or we find the work that we do to be difficult or even burdensome, our work is still an expression of our dignity as human beings. But as important as it is, there is much more to who we are than the work we do.
Within my faith tradition, the practice of Sabbath rest, the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, is important. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, we read the account of the six days of creation, during which God brought into being everything that is. Yet on the seventh day of creation, God ceased his labors, and rested. The weekly Sabbath rest of Jews and Christians is patterned on the model of this Divine rest at the beginning of creation itself. For religious believers, commanded to keep the Sabbath day holy, the day of rest is a day set aside to honor and worship God as a community, to renew our family relationships and to intentionally slow down and spend time rejuvenating oneself. I learned early in my priesthood that there are different ways to approach rest and relaxation.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1983, the pastor of the parish and I had just sat down for lunch. The morning Masses kept us busy and the afternoon would provide time to relax. It was my first parish assignment and I was learning a lot as a newly ordained priest. As the housekeeper brought lunch to the table she overheard me say to the pastor that it was such a beautiful day that I thought I would wash my car. The housekeeper looked at the pastor, then looked at me and simply said, “No you won’t.” She saw the puzzled look on my face and shared with me that she thought it would be scandalous to conduct ‘servile work’ in the rectory driveway.
The expression ‘servile work’ was something I had not heard in a long time. In fact, I would not have identified washing my car on a beautiful afternoon as ‘work’ but as a form of relaxation. In my mind, there is nothing better than sitting back with a cold beverage after washing and waxing a car or cutting the grass and looking at the fruits of one’s labor.
Nevertheless, many are under increasing pressure to live a 24-7 life in which the world of work is so prominent that finding time for family, or living a cultural, social and religious life becomes increasingly more difficult. For some, the boundaries that keep work and the rest of our lives apart have broken down.
Summer is a great time to reflect on the balance between work and rest in our lives. The weekly day of rest and leisure that the Jewish and Christian traditions call the Sabbath gives us the regular opportunity to bring our everyday work and routine to a halt and to provide us with a needed respite. One day out of six, we should rest and allow others rest as well.
The sights of people on vacation are all around us in Juneau. It is great to see the docked cruise ships, the buses filled with sightseers, the shoppers in downtown and chartered trips for people to enjoy all that Southeast Alaska has to offer. Larger airports offer a chance to spot people on vacation, for example, parents holding the hands of their children who have mouse ears coming out of their small skull caps. I look at the luggage they’re carting, the exhausted look on their faces and I hope that the effort brings about that feeling of cherishing the fruits of their efforts — there are different ways to approach rest and relaxation.
From my perspective, whether we are religious or secular, our human life is one that should have a rhythm of work and rest.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.