Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Keeping the Sabbath Holy in a Topophobic Culture: Reflections Arising From Dies Domini

Keeping the Sabbath Holy in a Topophobic Culture: Reflections Arising From Dies Domini

Originally published in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology, 33:2 (Winter 1999), 21-25.”Don Quixote has not arrived at the age of taedium vitae, which is commonly manifested among not a few modern spirits in the form of topophobia: these people spend their lives running at top speed from one place to another, not from any love of the place to which they are going, but from odium of the place they are leaving behind, thus fleeing all places, which is one of the forms of despair.”[1]

Pope John Paul II has given us a very rich, dense and timely document in his Apostolic Letter entitled Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy)[2]. The Letter evokes a number of serious questions. It would be unfortunate if we did not take the opportunity to reflect at depth on those questions. This response to the Letter is not so much an analysis, as an attempt to unearth some of the questions it raises.

The unearthing begins with a brief comment on the world in which we find ourselves at this time in Australia. Against that backdrop I will look at the text of DD itself and consider some of the questions it evokes.


Among other things, ours is a world of movement and change, one in which the world view and concomitant institutions of a more stable and apparently unchanging world of recent generations, simply do not work well. Our relationship with the natural world around us and our experience of time are two factors of our social and cultural milieu that are especially relevant in any discussion of the Holy Father’s Letter. Closely allied to these two factors is a third which pertains not so much to our external world as our internal world: Our propensity for evasion of life.

a) Our relationship with the natural world around us

We are emerging from an industrial age which paved the way for the age of micro-chips.[3] That industrial age already signalled something of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, a world in which we would “put nature to the rack” and force it to yield the necessities for “a good society”.[4] All of which has left us with a decidedly ambivalent relationship with the natural world and its rhythms, despite the remarkable technological achievements. Over the past two hundred years or so, the human family’s attitude towards its place in the world and its specific relationship with nature, has tended to shift from participation towards control, from humble acceptance towards arrogant appropriation, from awe towards utilitarianism, from theocentrism towards anthropocentrism.[5]

We tend to experience life as disconnected – from ourselves, each other and the natural world.[6] We feel ourselves separate from the rest of nature. We live around it, ogle at it as tourists or simply use it. The movements and rhythms of that natural world, so crucial to the development of world views and institutions in previous social and cultural milieux, are of little relevance to us. Yes, of course, in summer we do summery things like watching the cricket and in winter we do wintery things like watching the football. But this is not because nature’s rhythm as such is intimate to the unfolding of our lives. It is far more pragmatic and superficial than that. Cricket, for example, is enjoyable in the warmer weather and unenjoyable in the colder weather. And vice versa for football. The rhythms of our lives, in so far as we have any, are determined for the most part by us, not nature, and they are determined on the basis of our wishes and what we perceive as our needs, limits and possibilities.

b) Our experience of time

Interdependent with this altered and somewhat problematic relationship with nature and its rhythms, is an altered and somewhat problematic relationship with time. It haunts our pleasurable moments and burdens our harried ones. We find waiting, for example, a dreadful challenge. Ours is a world of microwave ovens that cook our meals before we can turn around, computers that complete complex procedures with blinding speed, a world of faxes and emails, of the encyclopaedia on disk and the ten second “sound bite”. Time, often enough, is the enemy. It is there to be circumvented, overcome, beaten or simply used.

c) Our propensity for evasion of life

The epigraph to this essay – taken from a text written near the beginning of this century – reminds us of another dimension of the fast-moving world in which we find ourselves. A cultural and social milieu, such as that alluded to above, does not just happen. It is created by people, and mirrors the inner worlds of those people even as it helps to create those inner worlds.

There seems to be sufficient evidence to suggest that we human beings will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid ourselves.[7] We engage in all manner of flight and evasion. It may, in fact, suit us to look to an external world that is so frenetic and fluid because it justifies our own evasiveness. In other words, we can claim a sort of victim status, blaming the world that will not let us be still, silent and reflective. The Book of Genesis is enlightening:

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself’. (Gen 3:8-10 – RSV)

It is interesting to substitute different names for God in this story – names like Truth, Love, Relationship, Silence, Reflection. This is an archetypal story. God’s question echoes repeatedly, down through the ages, in the lives of each of us: “Where are you?”. And the same answer is repeatedly given: “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself”.


In the Introduction to the document, the holy Father indicates the purpose of DD:

Given the array of new situations and the questions which they prompt, it seems more necessary than ever to recover the deep doctrinal foundations underlying the Church’s precept, so that the abiding value of Sunday in the Christian life will be clear to all the faithful (n.6).

Given this intention, it is not surprising that the document is dense. The reader must be seriously committed to understanding the contents and fairly theologically literate. We will look at the document a chapter at a time, highlighting some of the more important points and the questions they evoke.

a) Chapter I: Dies Domini

The “doctrinal foundations” are presented under five chapter headings. Chapter One is entitled “Dies Domini: The Celebration of the Creator’s Work”. Here the Old Testament roots in “Shabbat” are described. However, the very first sentence of this Chapter explicitly points to Easter and the Risen Christ. The Resurrection will remain the focus for the Christian understanding of Sunday throughout this document.[8]

There are also two paragraphs on “remembering” in this Chapter (cf Nos.16-17) which are particularly beautiful and call for extended meditation. In a world of rapid and immense change such as ours, living in forgetfulness is a real danger. If we are to live in remembrance, remembering who we are and why we are here and what is important, we must take deliberate steps to facilitate the remembering. The celebration of “the Day of the Lord” has always been central to our remembering who we are.[9]

How do we effectively remember Jesus and our Christian identity, especially in the absence of the symbols, customs and general ethos of the Catholic culture of a bygone era? Is the Sunday celebration for us an act of remembering? Do we need to be more deliberate and definite about this process of remembering?

b) Chapter II: Dies Christi

Chapter Two is entitled “Dies Christi: The Day of the Risen Lord and of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”. In terms of doctrine, this Chapter could be considered the heart of the document, developing, as it does, the focus on Jesus’ Resurrection. Sunday is “the day of Resurrection”. Here, as throughout the document, ancient practices and ancient authors are called upon as witnesses:

‘We celebrate Sunday because of the venerable Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we do so not only at Easter but also at each turning of the week’: so wrote Innocent I at the beginning of the fifth century, testifying to an already well established practice which had evolved from the early years after the Lord’s Resurrection. Saint Basil speaks of ‘holy Sunday, honoured by the Lord’s Resurrection, the first fruits of all the other days’; and Saint Augustine calls Sunday ‘a sacrament of Easter’ (n.19).

In this Chapter also, the document introduces the important notion of patterns in our lives with such phrases as “the rhythm of life” (cf n.21) and “the rhythm of days” and “the weekly rhythm” (cf n.22). These “rhythms” for the Christian, says the document, are centred on the Resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples:[10]

According to the common witness of the Gospels, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead took place on ‘the first day after the Sabbath’ (Mk 16:2,9; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1). On the same day the Risen Lord appeared to the two disciples of Emmaus (cf Lk 24:13-35) and to the eleven Apostles gathered together (cf Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19). … The day of Pentecost – the first day of the eighth week after the Jewish Passover (cf Acts 2:1), when the promise made by Jesus to the Apostles after the Resurrection was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf Lk 24:29; Acts 1:4-5) – also fell on a Sunday. … It was for this reason that, from Apostolic times, ‘the first day after the Sabbath’, the first day of the week, began to shape the rhythm of life for Christ’s disciples (cf 1Cor 16:2) (nos.20-21).

The essential challenge and significant questions of the document begin to emerge very clearly in this Chapter. To what extent is “the Lord’s Day” the central dynamism of a “rhythm” in the lives of Catholics in Australia at this time? More fundamentally, to what extent can we speak of “the weekly rhythm” or “the rhythm of days” any more for many Australians at this time? For a great number of us, our days and weeks are arhythmic rather than rhythmic. How should we respond? Is it possible to do anything about this situation? Should we just accept that this is the kind of world in which we find ourselves or should we offer some kind of creative resistance? Is this arythmic world driving a wedge between us and our essential roots as disciples of the Risen Lord? The document, as it proceeds through the following Chapters, forces us to face these and other related questions.

c) Chapter III: Dies Ecclesiae

Chapter Three is entitled “Dies Ecclesiae: The Eucharistic Assembly – Heart of Sunday”. This Chapter could be considered the practical and pastoral heart of the document as it develops the ecclesiological and eucharistic implications of the content of the previous Chapter. Here DD opens an immense pastoral issue for the Church at this time with a particularly pithy turn of phrase: “The Eucharist is an epiphany of the Church” (cf n.34). The document reiterates the profound teaching of the Church concerning the Eucharist:

The Eucharist is not only a particularly intense expression of the reality of the Church’s life, but also in a sense its ‘fountain-‘head’. The Eucharist feeds and forms the Church: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1Cor 10:17). Because of this vital link with the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, the mystery of the Church is savoured, proclaimed, and lived supremely in the Eucharist (n.32).

Extended mention in this context of “the Sunday obligation” (cf nos.46-49) is both predictable and worrying. Firstly, consider the predictability. The practical implications of the ecclesiological and eucharistic dimensions of our life together are unavoidable:

Since the Eucharist is the very heart of Sunday, it is clear why, from the earliest centuries, the Pastors of the Church have not ceased to remind the faithful of the need to take part in the liturgical assembly. ‘Leave everything on the Lord’s Day’, urges the third century text known as the Didascalia, ‘and run diligently to your assembly, because it is your praise of God. Otherwise, what excuse will they make to God, those who do not come together on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and feed on the divine nourishment which lasts forever?'” (n.46)

Secondly, consider the anomaly that arises precisely because of this unavoidable truth of our faith. What can the Church do for those many millions of Catholics throughout the world – a growing number in fact – who are unable to celebrate this central mystery and have access to this “fountain-head” of the Church’s life, this “fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (cf Lumen Gentium n.11), because the current laws prevent them having someone to preside at the assembly? It does not make a lot of sense to recognise Sunday as the Lord’s Day – which it is – and speak of Sunday obligation – which is entirely reasonable – and yet have a system which effectively denies both to so many people.

On the same theme, we also need to ask questions about the dramatic falling away, in Australia, from practice of celebrating the Eucharist, especially among the young. Clearly this is a complex issue, one that cannot be addressed by pointing the finger of blame at this or that. At least one of the factors involved in this issue pertains, again, to the way in which the Eucharist is in fact celebrated. In what way does this celebration speak to the experience of the people of our age, especially the young? Is the proclamation of the Word bringing the heart of the Gospel into the heart of the culture? To what extent is Eucharist the central dynamism of our parish life? Do we need to re-consider the organisation of our local Churches around the parish, the architecture of our churches, the manner of our rituals and the nature of our symbols? These questions ought no preempt the response. We need to take up these and related questions in both a scholarly and pastoral way, and expect that the conversation they demand will be ongoing.

So the document challenges us not only to ask how – even whether – Sunday fits our culture – and personal lives – with its disconnected and irregular structures, and what we might do about that. It also challenges the Church herself to ask how she is going to enable communities throughout the world to celebrate “the Lord’s Day” in accord with the authentic Gospel tradition, mindful of the cultural realities in which that celebration is to take place.

d) Chapter IV: Dies Hominis

Chapter Four is entitled “Dies Hominis: Sunday – Day of Joy, Rest and Solidarity”. The document notes that before Sunday was ever considered as a day of rest, it was already a day of joy (cf n.55). The Didascalia of the third century is again cited: “On the first day of the week, you shall all rejoice” (cf n.55). “Therefore, if we wish to discover the full meaning of Sunday, we must rediscover this aspect of the life of faith” (n.57).[11] The document then returns to the theme of “Sabbath” (cf 59-68).[12] Having established the unique nature of Sunday, the “Lord’s Day”, the Old Testament roots of that celebration are recalled:

This aspect of the Christian Sunday (ie as a celebration of joy because of our faith in the Risen Lord) shows in a special way how it is the fulfilment of the Old Testament Sabbath. On the Lord’s Day, which – as we have already said – the Old Testament links to the work of creation (cf Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11) and the Exodus (cf Deut 5:12-15) the Christian is called to proclaim the new creation and the new covenant brought about in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Far from being abolished, the celebration of creation becomes profound within a Christocentric perspective, being seen in the light of God’s plan ‘to unite all things in (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10). The remembrance of the liberation of the Exodus also assumes its full meaning as it becomes a remembrance of the universal redemption accomplished by Christ in his Death and Resurrection More than a ‘replacement’ for the Sabbath, therefore, Sunday is its fulfilment, and in a certain sense its extension and full expression in the ordered unfolding of the history of salvation, which reaches its culmination in Christ (n.59).

The rather extended reflection on the roots of Sunday in the Sabbath, offers some of the richest insights of this document. In this context, the document makes it clear how little our celebration of Sunday actually owes to the Romans:

For several centuries, Christians observed Sunday simply as a day of worship, without being able to give it the specific meaning of Sabbath rest. Only in the fourth century did the civil law of the Roman Empire recognise the weekly recurrence, determining that, on ‘the day of the sun’ the judges, the people of the cities and various trade corporations would not work. Christians rejoiced to see thus removed the obstacles which until then had sometimes made observance of the Lord’s Day heroic. They could now devote themselves to prayer in common without hindrance (n.64).

A much overlooked issue of justice, pertaining specifically to work, is raised in this same context. The document recognises the deep human need for, and right to, rest. “The alternation between work and rest (is) built into human nature. … rest is something sacred” (cf n.65). DD goes on to speak of

an obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires, together with the associated religious, family, cultural and interpersonal needs which are difficult to meet if there is no guarantee of at least one day of the week on which people can both rest and celebrate (n.66).

The challenges and questions we spoke of above in reference to Chapter II emerge in their full practical force in this Chapter. Again many of us – perhaps most – live in a context that, for the most part, has forsaken the traditional “weekly recurrence” (cf n.64 and 37). The old division of the working week and the weekend simply does not apply to many of us. Rather than speak of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc, it is often more appropriate to start on January 1 and number the days off from there – Oneday, Twoday, Threeday and so on through the year. The concept of “the working week” has changed from a set of days – generally Monday through Friday – to a set of hours, which could be on any days and at any times during those days. And, increasingly, work is being arranged on a contract basis which can make work times even more irregular and unpredictable.

It is perhaps most particularly at this practical point that we are reminded that the life structures of a secular culture are predicated on a different basis to the life structures of a religious culture. When the former dominates – as in Australia at the end of the twentieth century – some difficult questions arise for us all, at both a very personal and communal level.

DD raises serious questions about the sanity of our lives. Stress and burnout are common features of our lifestyles and it has become common enough these days to speak of an “epidemic of depression” in our society. And youth suicides continue to rise. What is happening? Is it possible that we have forgotten the Sabbath component of life? Do we know how to play, to celebrate, to enjoy each other’s company? Are we reflective enough? Are we so absorbed in having and doing that we substitute mere seeming for being? Do we perhaps miss life in the living?[13]

To speak of “an obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the freedom, rest and relaxation which human dignity requires” is a timely challenge. This is not an optional extra but “an obligation”, a matter of justice “which human dignity requires”.

e) Chapter V: Dies Dierum

Chapter Five is entitled “Dies Dierum: Sunday – The Primordial Feast, Revealing the Meaning of Time”. “The years of Christ’s earthly life truly constitute the centre of time; this centre reaches its apex in the Resurrection” (n.74). For the believer, all history is subsumed within salvation history and the Incarnation is the pivot of salvation history. DD, in highlighting the centrality of the Incarnation to all human history, reminds us that our understanding of time is unique:

It has nothing to do with the cosmic cycles according to which natural religion and human culture tend to impose a structure on time, succumbing perhaps to the myth of eternal return. The Christian Sunday is wholly other! Springing from the Resurrection, it cuts through human time, the months, the years, the centuries, like a directional arrow which points them towards their target: Christ’s Second Coming. Sunday foreshadows the last day, the day of the Parousia, which in a way is already anticipated by Christ’s glory in the event of the Resurrection (n.75).

The document recalls the reference made earlier to “weekly recurrence” and “rhythm”. It then points to another “rhythm”: “the annual liturgical cycle” (n.76). The annual celebration of the major Christian feasts were closely linked with the annual celebration of the Jewish feasts (cf. n.76).

This last Chapter reiterates what has been said in different ways in the rest of the document. The special value of this Chapter lies in its drawing attention to the nature of time. As mentioned above, our culture has difficulty with time. It is more of an obstacle to be overcome than a reality with which we must develop some harmony. This is a far cry from the spirit of the Benedictine tradition, where time is “sanctified” by the Liturgy of the Hours.[14] And today, where do we see evidence of the authentic tradition’s appreciation for and provision of solitude and silence in the community, time to retreat from busyness and into silence and gentle, focused reflection? DD calls us to reflect on our experience of time. Implicitly at least, it points to the precious memory preserved in the monastic tradition, a tradition in which all time belongs to God. Time is the place of the Incarnation, now. All this, of course, depends on a particular attitude. We are forced to ponder some questions: How do we experience time? How compulsive and wilful are we? What happens when we must wait? In the time-fulness of time do we ever experience the time-lessness beyond time? Is there any sense in which we are victims of time? Is time friend or foe?


A good response to DD would be to follow a twofold path of study and meditation. In the first instance, it would be well for us – individually and corporately – to reflect on what is happening in our lives. In the second instance, it would be well for us – individually and corporately – to reflect on the meaning of Sunday. There will be no creative response until or unless there is an awareness of the need to make a response. This awareness of need must be accompanied by some understanding of the facts that might require such a response. Finally, an appreciation for the profound reality that Sunday symbolises, must inform both our discernment and our response.

[1] (Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations,

trans Anthony Kerrigan, Princeton Universiy Press, 1990, 354)

[2] St Pauls Publication, 1998. Henceforward referred to as DD.

[3] Cf for example, Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, Bantam Books, 1981.

[4] Francis Bacon (1561-1626), philosopher, solicitor and political figure, was one of the forerunners to the modern age. Bacon believed that knowledge was power. His goal was the Great Instauration, restoring humanity to mastery over the natural world. For Bacon, science was to play a preeminent role in this restoration. In The New Atalntis he developed the concept of an ideal society, where science was the key to happiness because it gave power over nature. The New Atlantis was published in 1627, soon after Bacon died. Bacon’s influence on the thinking of modernity is obvious.

[5] Cf for example, Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, Crossroad, 1982.

[6] Cf R D Laing, The Politics of Experience, Penguin, 1967. Abraham Heschel comments: “We live in an age of self-dissipation, of depersonalization. Should we adjust our vision of existence to our paucity, make a virtue of obtuseness, glorify evasion?” (Abraham Heschel, ‘On Prayer’ in Susannah Heschel, ed, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Abrham Joshua Hescehl, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996, 264) We should not overlook the effects of such technological developments as electric lights, which help us override the rhythms of day and night, air conditioning, which help us override the rhythms of hot and cold, leather shoes, concrete and bitumen which keep us disconnected from the earth, various means of transport, which help us override the constraints of geography, chemical fertilisers which help us override the limits of the soil, and irrigation systems which help us override the vagaries of the weather, and so on. All of these in some way can contribute to the sense of disconnectedness, whether we are conscious of that disconnectedness or not. Furthermore, various branches of human knowledge have left us with the assumption that we know how it all works and where it all comes from. There is little or no room for mystery and awe as we look at the world around us.

[7] Thomas Merton observes: “Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Anthony Clarke, 1961, 27). And T. S Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T S Eliot, Burnt Norton); “Our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.” (T S Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Barnes and Noble, 1970).

[8] Note that the focus is fairly narrowly on the Resurrection, not the celebration of the Paschal Mystery as such. Given the later focus (cf Chapter III) on Eucharist – the community’s proclamation of the saving death of the Lord Jesus until he comes (cf 1Cor 11:26) – this is difficult to understand. For example, the document does not mention the Cross until well into Chapter III (cf n.43). And this is the only place the Cross is mentioned until a reference is made at the very end, in passing, to Mary at the foot of the Cross (cf n.86). There are a few other passing references, for example, to the crucified (cf nos.58, 75, 76 and 77) and to words used in some Eucharistic Prayers – “the day when Christ conquered death” – and a footnote to that last reference which makes the omission of substantial references to the Cross all the more difficult to understand: “These words … stress powerfully the ‘Paschal’ character of Sunday” (cf footnote n.44). Surely the Cross, the great symbol of Jesus’ saving death, is the very heart of the Paschal Mystery? Hans Kung notes: “The cross … is the element which radically distinguishes Christian faith and the Lord who is the object of this faith from other religions and their gods (Hans Kung, “What is the Christian Message?” in The Catholic Mind, 68 (December 1970), p.32).

[9] It has been said of the Jewish tradition that it has not been so much a matter of the Jews keeping the Sabbath but the Sabbath keeping the Jews.

[10] See also nos.38, 42 and 64. The word “rhythm” is actually used earlier (cf n.15) but in relation to “the interruption of the often oppressive rhythm of work”.

[11] Josef Piper’s little classic work, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), offers a helpful philosophical complement to what the document is saying here.

[12] First raised in Chapter I, especially in n.11.

[13] Josef Piper’s little book Leisure the Basis of Culture, New American Library, 1963, provides an excellent reflection pertinent to such questions as these. These sorts of questions also remind us of Plato’s record of Socrates’ defence of himself at his trial with comments like “For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your property, , but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul” and “daily to discourse about virtue and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living”. (Plato, “Apology” in The Dialogues of Plato, The Jowett Translations, ed Justin D Kaplan, Pocket Books, 1951, 24 and 34)

[14] Cf for example, contemporary witness of a non-Catholic Benedictine Oblate: Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, Riverhead Books, 1996.