The Value of the Sabbath

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Father David BonnarI have been thinking a lot lately about my previous priesthood retreats. Perhaps it is because I have been asked to give two retreats to priests next year, and therefore I am starting to think about a theme. While I have been faithful to this annual expectation as a priest, I have never had the humble responsibility of preparing to deliver a retreat to brother priests. I certainly pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire me to speak a message of comfort and peace to the brothers.

One of the more interesting priesthood retreats for me happened in what was my fourth year of priesthood. I remember the retreat master asking us one day to enter into the Sabbath. Essentially, he wanted us to do nothing. Do you realize how hard that is for a 30-year-old man? I suppose the act of doing nothing can be a challenge for anyone. This practice of simply resting and being was a way for us priests to acclimate ourselves more fully with the Sabbath. Back then, and even now, I find this something easier said than done.

Thomas Merton once said:, “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have — for their usefulness.” The beauty of the Sabbath experience is that it allows us to rest and just be. That is why I am sure that for many years there were no stores open on Sundays. Virtually everything was closed in observance of the Sabbath. But now in most places Sunday is for many just another day. How sad!

It is a habit of mine to look at the Sunday readings a week in advance and sit with them, to allow the Lord to speak to me what he wants me to share with the faithful. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the first reading for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah states, “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, / ministering to him, / loving the name of the LORD, / and becoming his servants— / all who keep the sabbath free from profanation / and hold to my covenant, / them I will bring to my holy mountain / and make joyful in my house of prayer; / their burnt offerings and sacrifices / will be acceptable on my altar, / for my house shall be called / a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:6-7). These words certainly contain promise for all those who keep holy the Sabbath.

Five years ago, I had another Sabbath experience when I participated in a month-long mini-sabbatical sponsored by the Institute of Priests and Presbyterates at St. Meinrad Seminary. For one month, with the permission of my bishop, I stepped away from the grind and rigors of parish life and ministry to join six other priests in a commitment to rest and renewal. It was one of the best things I could do at that time for my life and ministry as a priest. I would strongly recommend it to any priest who has served 25 years and longer. It became for me a rest stop for my soul.

What happened at that retreat in my early priesthood, as well as what transpired at the Stoking the Fire Mini-Sabbatical at St. Meinrad, can happen every Sunday. In fact, it should happen every Sunday, for Sunday is the Lord’s day. While this time of pandemic has, in some cases, made all the days of the week seem the same, we must never diminish the value of the Sabbath and the sacredness of Sunday. After all, we need the Sabbath to not only rest but also to remind us of our greatest need, the need for God.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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