Here’s a tip for any students you know who want to do well in school: Keep the fourth commandment. Tell them to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
I used to teach writing at the Protestant seminary in Ambridge. One of my students went on to a really tough New Testament program. (He and his wife also entered the Catholic Church, which was cool.) He shocked the other doctoral students by taking off Sundays. He and his wife would go to Mass early in the morning and then get lunch out or go to a park or watch a game on television.
His classmates studied all the time, pretty much non-stop. They thought he was crazy to spend one day out of seven doing something else. He finished at the top of his class. He was very smart, which obviously helped, but he credits his success in part to making Sundays a genuine holy day. He did well because he remembered the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
He got the idea from a book I had my students read. The book was “The Intellectual Life” by a French Dominican theologian named A.G. Sertillanges. It appeared in 1946 and is still being published.
Why does this help? Lots of studies explain the value of a regular day off. It gives you a breather, a reset, a rest, even a kind of deep-mind cleanse. The world tells you to work, work, work, but the thing about people is, we work better when we don’t work all the time. We need breaks.
Christians need more than this. We need to be reminded of who we worship and what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. Sunday Mass and a restful day afterward help us remember this. Without it, we can get so caught up in our work that our work is all we see and hear. That’s as true for hard-working students as anyone else.
Work is like constant noise or like a 3-year-old who grabs your sleeve every minute all day long to demand something. A Sunday that’s really a Sabbath is like walking into a quiet park where you can hear the birds singing and children playing. It’s like a 20-something child who just wants to hang out with you. In that quiet and peace you can listen to God better than you can when you’re stuck in the noise.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “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.” To put it another way: We’re made to worship. We’ll always worship something — including our job and the things the job gets us. Sundays help us remember to worship God.
And another thing. The catechism notes that God rested on the seventh day of creation. This tells us that “Human life has a rhythm of work and rest.”
Why Sundays? “The Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives. 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.”
Students need that as much as anyone. Sertillanges thinks study is hugely important. He even calls it an “indirect” way of worshipping God. But he reminds us that study comes second to “worship, prayer, direct meditation on the things of God.”
My student’s friends thought they needed to give up those things to succeed as students. They made Sunday a day like every other day.
That’s backward, Sertillanges says. To think that giving up worship will make us better students “is to say that the stream will flow better if its spring is dried up.” God is the spring. The Christian Sunday is one of the ways we drink the living water he gives us. That living water will make us better at whatever we do. So students: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Mills is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Coraopolis and writes a weekly column for Aleteia (www.aleteia.org/author/david-mills).