Moral Briefs – Chapter LII – Worship of Rest

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonParticipation in public worship is the positive obligation flowing from the Third Commandment; abstention from labor is what is negatively enjoined. Now, works differ as widely in their nature as differ in form and dimension the pebbles on the sea-shore. There are works of God and works of the devil, and works which, as regards spirituality, are totally indifferent, profane works, as distinguished from sacred and sinful works. And these latter may be corporal or intellectual or both. Work or labor or toil, in itself, is a spending of energy, an exercise of activity; it covers a deal of ground. And since the law simply says to abstain from work, it falls to us to determine just what works are meant, for it is certain that all works, that is, all that come under the general head of work, do not profane the Lord’s day.

The legislation of the Church, which is the custodian of the Sunday, on this head commends itself to all thoughtful men; while, for those who recognize the Church as the true one, that legislation is authority. The Church distinguishes three kinds of profane works, that is, works that are neither sacred nor iniquitous of their nature. There is one kind which requires labor of the mind rather than of the body. These works tend directly to the culture or exercise of the mind, and are called liberal works, because under the Romans, freemen or “liberi” almost exclusively were engaged therein. Such are reading, writing, studying, music, drawing – in general, mental occupations in whole, or more mental than corporal. These works the Church does not consider the law includes in its prohibition, and they are consequently not forbidden.

It is impossible here to enumerate all that enters into this class of works; custom has something to say in determining what is liberal in our works; and in investigating, we must apply to each case the general principle. The labor in question may be gratuitous or well paid; it may cause fatigue or afford recreation: all this is not to the point. The question is, outside the danger of omitting divine, service, scandal or circumstances that might lead to the annoyances and distraction of others – the question is: does this work call for exercise of the mind more than that of the body? If the answer is affirmative, then the work is liberal, and as such it is not forbidden on Sunday, it is not considered a profanation of the Lord’s day.

On the other extreme are what go by the name of servile works, which call forth principally bodily effort and tend directly to the advantage of the body. They are known also as works of manual labor. Before the days of Christianity, slaves alone were thus employed, and from the word “servi” or slaves these are called servile works.

Here again it is the nature of the work that makes it servile. It may be remunerative or not, recreative or not, fatiguing or not; it may be a regular occupation, or just taken up for the moment; it may be, outside cases of necessity, for the glory of God or for the good of the neighbor. If it is true that the body has more part therein than the mind, then it is a servile work and it is forbidden. Of course there are serious reasons that dispense us from our obligation to this law, but we are not talking about that just at present.

The reason of the proscription is, not that such works are evil, but that they interfere with the intention we should give to the worship we owe to God, and that, without this cessation of labor, our bodily health would be impaired: these are the two motives of the law. But even if it happened, in an individual case, that these inconveniences were removed, that neither God’s reverence nor one’s own health suffered from such occupations as the law condemns, the obligation would still remain to abstain therefrom, for it is general and absolute, and when there is question of obeying a law, the subject has a right to examine the law, but not the motives of the law.

We shall later see that there are other works, called common, which require activity of the mind and of the body in about an equal measure or which enter into the common necessities of life. These are not forbidden in themselves, although in certain contingencies they may be adjudged unlawful; but, in the matter of servile works, nothing but necessity, the greater glory of God, or the good of the neighbor, can allow us to consider the law non-binding. To break it is a sin, slight or grievous, according to the nature of the offense.