ASK FATHER: What hobbies are permitted on Sundays?

From a reader…


What hobbies are permitted on Sundays? I like to knit and crochet clothing and blankets for pleasure, but have heard that this is considered servile labor. Yes, perhaps historically this was work, but nowadays this is a welcome break from my actual labors. Please help me understand.

A question that is both simple and complicated.

Let’s start with a foundation: the 3rd Commandment of the Decalogue.  This is God’s positive law.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.  (Ex 20:8-10; cf. Deut 5:12-15.)

Several things.

First, Sunday, the “first day” and the “eighth day” (outside of time) is not “the sabbath”, which is the “seventh day”.  However, for Christians, we see the meaning of the sabbath fulfilled in Christ’s saving work and Resurrection. Hence, we rightly fulfil the observance of sabbath rest on Sundays.  This has been our Christian practice from the very beginning of the Church.

Second, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath. (Mk 2:27-28)

Third, notice that the 3rd Commandment commands that we rest, but it also commands that we work.  It doesn’t suggest that we work.

Fourth, the sabbath (or the day that supersedes, Sunday) is “a sabbath to the Lord your God”.  Therefore, it involves not just rest from work but also worship.  Holy Church has a precept, a positive law founded in divine positive law, concerning the obligation to participate at Holy Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation.  NB: All Sundays are Holy Days of Obligation.

Obviously we are not bound to do what is impossible.  If there is no Mass or we are impeded, there is no obligation.  That’s the stuff of other posts.

Fifth, a hobby can be work but it isn’t toil.  A hobby can very much be manual, but not servile (done in the manner of a slave, unavoidable).  And there is a difference between “work” and “toil”.  Because of the fall of our First Parents, much work has become toil.  But, as John Paul II explained beautifully, work gives us dignity, where toil… not so much.  Toil is a punishment due to Original Sin.

The sabbath obligation involves rest and worship.  Worship is pretty clear.  What is rest?

Let’s see the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder [1] the worship owed to God, [2] the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, [3] the performance of the works of mercy, and the [4] appropriate relaxation of mind and body. [Cf. CIC, can. 120.] Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.

The charity of truth seeks holy leisure- the necessity of charity accepts just work. [St. Augustine, De civ. Dei 19,19:PL 41,647.]  [“Leisure” or “otium” and the tension with”negotium”, the lack of otium is a constant theme for Augustine.  He longed for the one (for readings and praying) but was, as a bishop, constantly required for “business”.]

2186 Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights, yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. [Doesn’t sound like “recreation” or a “hobby”.] Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.

2187 Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day. Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc.), and social necessities (public services, etc.), require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure. With temperance and charity the faithful will see to it that they avoid the excesses and violence sometimes associated with popular leisure activities. In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.  [There’s a reason why lots of people drive to Chick-fil-a instead of other places.]

Returning to the question, which includes:

“I like to knit and crochet clothing and blankets for pleasure…”

Whereas according to Jewish laws that might be prohibited as work on the sabbath, I cannot fathom how a Christian understanding of the sabbath would prohibit knitting for pleasure.   This is not exactly ditch digging, is it.  If you were a day laborer and an 18th c. Belgian lacemaker’s shop, with an exacting task master standing over you all the time, that might qualify as “servile work”.

Provided that significant, meaningful time is given to the worship of God and rest from work, it seems entirely within the bounds of the Decalogue and the Precepts of the Church to play some tennis (which is hard “work” but not “labor”), or to do some gardening (which can be strenuous and dirty, but quite therapeutic for some), or build a tree house for the kids (certainly involving heavy lifting and effort), cooking for the family (cooking is one of the most strenuous and even dangerous jobs I had in my life… in a restaurant kitchen, but at home for friends… hard? Sure.  A pleasure?  Da bomb!).

Avoid unnecessary work, toil.

Hobbies can be strenuous, but they are, by definition, leisure.  Challenging and exhausting doesn’t line up with onerous and wearying: the former can be restorative while the later are debilitating.

Note also the emphasis on works of mercy.  Talk about hard work!  But is that “labor”?  I guess so, in that it is a labor of love.  That which is done for charity, sacrificial love for the good the other, is entirely in the spirit of the 3rd Commandment, Christ’s gloss and personal example, the Precept of the Church, the Code of Canon Law, common sense….

There are some things which really need to be done on a Sunday.  For example, the toilet backs up.  Do you ignore it?  No.  The floor ought to be scrubbed.  Can it wait one day, for Monday?  Probably, unless its a health hazard.  Who knows what that stuff is on the floor that junior tracked in?   Dry wall has to be put up in the room that will become the nursery.  Can it wait?  The missus is due a) in 3 months or b) in 3 days.  Make the call.  AFTER Mass, perhaps you can get some of that work done on the nursery.

Friends, don’t torture yourself with Sunday rest or work.  It helps to have a plan for your Sunday, so you are not just bumping around.  Make sure you have time for rest – or what passes for rest when you have lots of kids or dependents or some activities helpful for others depend on you.  Never neglect worship of God.

By the way, I wrote this on a Sunday – and it is work to write this – as a spiritual work of mercy.

Office fulfilled, Mass celebrated, restorative nap checked off, now I shall play some chess.  And if you don’t think that that is work, you have never really played chess.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. TonyO says:

    A beautiful and delightful explanation of the matter. Thanks, Fr. Z.

    This all fits in well with what I had understood before about the Sunday obligation, but this makes it clearer as to the underlying principles, as well as helping with specific examples – examples both of things that qualify, things that don’t, AND things that may or may not depending on circumstances. This is why I keep coming back to Fr. Z.

  2. LeeGilbert says:

    Related: My mother used to tell this story on herself. We had an old German pastor who when he mounted the pulpit was like Moses come down from the mountain, Msgr Luke of blessed memory. Well, one Sunday he went on about the 3rd commandment. One thing he said, and she noted, was, “What work you do on Sunday will be undone on Monday!”

    Now, it was probably not that Sunday, but the following that she decided that the kitchen floor needed mopping. So, she did that. Now in those days we had milkmen who delivered milk, butter and eggs house to house. So come Monday morning, Mom opened the back door and into the kitchen tumbled a half gallon of milk, broke and spilled all over the floor. Lesson learned! But of course this was a lesson for the whole family and affects my behavior to this day. I would even say it is part of our family heritage.

  3. oldCatholigirl says:

    Thank you for the really excellent, exhaustive analysis, Father Z. Work well done!

  4. rhig090v says:

    Thank you Father for the clarity and thoughtfulness, laying out the framework for our consciences to follow when making judgments about Sunday activities.

  5. APX says:

    So if throwing out and decluttering my place makes me feel rejuvenated, happy, and mentally better than staring at the piles and boxes of clutter, it wouldn’t be sinful to spend an hour clearing stuff out?

  6. The Egyptian says:

    OK so I am a dairy farmer (really I am) Sunday is no different than any day as far as the cows are concerned. Milk at 5 am and pm and feed all of the animals plus clean equipment. I look at it as taking care of gods creatures. If I have a vexing problem in my farm shop I will sit and ponder it or clean and put away tools in the afternoon, that is my relaxation. Of course a nap may also be in the plan.

  7. teomatteo says:

    When I mow my lawn on a lazy sunday afternoon and my feet sink into that thick lush grass and I smell the newly cut blades…. need I say more?

  8. Cornelius says:

    Golf . . . after Mass, of course.

  9. mo7 says:

    Thank you FrZ, I love to be in my garden, but life demands that I am a weekend warrior. How can bringing forth beauty and veggies be taking away from our Lord’s Day??

  10. Imrahil says:

    As it were, I did physical labor last Sunday (perfectly legal… clearing up the beer tables and beer benches, and stuff, for a big Catholic missionary event which some of my friends helped organize) and loved to do so. I don’t work physically for a living.

    But that was an exception. ( I recreated, and stuff, yesterday. The Assumption, for which I am really greatful, is a public holiday here.)

    That being said, though the Catechism may not say recreation, recreation sure is a thing sorely needed (which is why many restaurants, which to frequent is actually a particular Sunday thing to do, often close on Mondays; and, often to the surprise of Americans, in Italy many museums are closed on Mondays; you can’t close them on Sundays which is when people have time to visit them) and given that fact it sure is a thing for the Sunday, provided other obligations don’t intervene.

    As for me by the way, I don’t at the moment usually do household chores on Sunday (other than cooking which is not a household chore but fun). I do not say it in order to brag; I am well aware that at least fairly below the “two hour limit” I would be allowed to do so, and there’s nothing wrong with doing what you are allowed to do, so I probably should do so because the things don’t get done anywhen else either (there’s the Saturday, but there’s only so much you can do on a Saturday; there’s Monday to Friday, but working a normal day feels enough for them…). However, the habit of not doing these things at all is one very easily slipped into, akin as it is to both holiness and laziness at the same time. For me probably more to the latter.

  11. Greg Hlatky says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Z. I’ve struggled with this question myself, as there are no clear-cut rules as to what’s right and how much is too much. I even feared I was doing wrong by stopping after Mass for coffee and donuts for the long drive home.

    We raise dogs, have a lot of property to maintain and live where it’s inconvenient to get to stores. Frequently, what we have to do depends on the weather.

    So I’ve concluded: don’t be a jerk. Avoid work if you can but don’t suffer agonies of guilt if you have to. And if you have to, offer it up AMDG.

  12. Cornelius says:

    Golf is truly the most divine of sports and so eminently fitting for a Sunday. I apologize but I must expand on this a bit.

    “Play it where it lies” is the pre-eminent rule of golf, reflecting golf’s orientation towards the objective order. You must deal with the ball’s location and position (its”lie”), you cannot simply move it to a better place to advance your game. This mirrors our obligation to accept the divinely revealed order and conduct our lives in accordance with it. We cannot simply remake divine law.

    And yet . . . the golfer is responsible for putting that ball where it is, indicating our subjective contribution to reality.

    Golf is a near perfect analogue to the arena of redemption, superbly blending its subjective and objective aspects. It is the greatest of sports because of this. Golf is God’s sport.

  13. RichR says:

    Most dilemmas regarding Sunday rest can be avoided by planning ahead. This involves getting your spouse and kids on the same page with regards to expectations.

  14. scaron says:

    Thanks for the clarification Father. I am a volunteer swim official and i will often go to early Mass on Sunday then spend the rest of the day officiating for the kids. I was already easy in my mind about it – this activity is certainly NOT restful, but certainly IS recreation for me, and is a volunteer service to the kids who otherwise would not get to compete. I love the kids and their spirit of fun and hard work – and have seen literally hundreds of kids turn their lives around in the pool. And often as I walk the side of the pool – back and forth, back and forth – I will pray the Jesus prayer as I observe. On the whole, a pretty great way to spend a Sunday.

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