as an
Expression of Worship

Sr. Olga Warnke, I.B.V.M.

This article by 
the late Sister Olga
originally appeared in 
Compass Theology Review
N.S.W., Australia
It has been made inclusive
by Rev. Jean Mitchell
and adapted by John Veltri, sj.

           Perhaps the title seems strange. Isn’t enjoyment something that is always going to be ours tomorrow? Today is never the time for that – we are much too busy to stop now; enjoyment must wait. And yet, I am seriously suggesting that we consider enjoyment as an expression of worship – which is surely for today and every day.

            Where did this notion of enjoyment-worship find its genesis in me? As I have listened to people who come to my office seeking what is known as “spiritual direction,” I have become increasingly aware of faces that betray fatigue, worry, pain, anxiety, guilt. And yet all these people are wonderful, loving, gifted, desirous of helping others; indeed wearing themselves out in trying to do just that. Why all the anxiety and fatigue?

            So I began asking, “What do you do for relaxation?” “What do you enjoy doing?” There was hesitation in the replies, even astonishment at the questions. I saw the need to probe deeper and it became only too evident that the work-responsibility-guilt syndrome was a real issue for these who were seeking spiritual help.

            The century just past experienced a history of disaster followed by a period of hope. Word War I was the war to end all wars – and we had won it – and so we roared through the twenties until we were abruptly halted by the crash of the stock market and the ensuing Depression. Before we could draw our breath we were into World War II; but again we hoped for victory, for peace, for our loved ones to come home, for our pocket books to fill up. The struggle was grim enough; but we always felt that better days were coming. And war ended; and prosperity came – and so did television, air travel, space travel, the computer, the cell phone and “hard rock”; and  teen-age suicide, and drugs, and crime. Disillusionment and distrust of the future have become endemic.

            Our television screens bring us our daily injustice, greed, exploitation of the helpless, all the forms of humanity’s cruelty to other humans – and the very fragility of our planet. And what psychological cushioning are we being offered for these glimpses at our sorry global village? The ads, of course! “Here’s the way to happiness and success: This antiperspirant that is better than other leading brands; or this soap will certainly bring romance without end....” Walk down any street and look at what the signs are saying: Buy this: it will make you somebody. Come in here: this is where the fun is at. Buy, buy, buy .... And then look at the faces; we have all seen them. 

            Cries for help come from all sides. We are being bombarded by the pleas of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, the exiled, the ignorant, the handicapped, the world and its countless needs and woes. How can we, who call ourselves Christian, afford to take time off in the midst of all this misery?

            Former restraints, based on the decalogue, and implicitly accepted by western civilization, no longer sustain social, personal, national or international standards of conduct. But freedom from the old restraint has imposed its heavier burdens on peoples and nations; and we find ourselves asking where have all our hopes for happiness gone? Mistrust of the future is the great blasphemy of our time.

            A 17-year-old Francoise Sagan shocked us in the 1950's by her first novel entitled Bonjour, Tristesse; her greeting to life was “Hello sadness, weariness, boredom to tears.”

            But it was the novel Les Nouveaux Pretres that I think first put me on to the train of thought that led to this paper. In this story, two ardent young priests, faced with the misery of the lower classes in Paris, were wearing themselves out going to meetings, organizing groups, missing meals, working long hours after they should have been resting. Into this parish was sent a newly ordained priest whom the other two set out to educate. He listened to their exhortations to him, to their sermons, to the message of their lives. He saw total dedication; but he knew something was wrong. One evening, as he was praying before retiring, he had a sudden insight: there was no joy in these priests, nor in what they said or preached. And since he could not suppress the joy within himself, he was relegated by the other two to the school and the children’s worship service. The children flocked around him; the children’s worship service began to draw the parents too to the amazement and consternation of the other two; and they came to hear what was being said. They heard no appeals to come to meetings, to get organized, to boycott the bourgeois. Instead, they heard of the love of the good God, of joy and of love of one another. The end of the story is of no consequence here. The key to what was wrong was the discovery: “There is no joy!” And I think it was then that the significance of the role of joy, of fun, of enjoyment and of relaxation began to nibble at my subconscious mind.

            Perhaps the two people who had the greatest impact on the world in the latter part of the twentieth century were Mother Teresa of India and Pope John XXIII. Both radiated joy. Both experienced the worst that this torn, sinful world of ours has to offer.

            Mother Teresa’s face said to me, “Jesus is the saviour; I am not.” In my own work, I see myself standing somewhat shamefacedly before Jesus holding half a tired sardine in my hand. And I hear him say, “I know that’s not worth considering as it is; but just give it to me lovingly and trustingly and watch what I will do with it.” Of course, what each of us has to offer is inadequate. But so were five loaves and two fishes a joke in the face of five thousand hungry people until they passed through the hands of Jesus. He is the saviour; and so we bring our crumbs in peace.

            And what of the tired anxious faces I spoke of earlier? Sensitive as you are to the spoken and unspoken appeals for help, it is so easy to feel that it is necessary to work day and night, to give every ounce of your energy. ... Meanwhile, what is happening is what has been called “burn-out.” I am suggesting that those in danger of burn-out need some enjoyment; a frequent reception of the “sacrament of fun.” Our preparation for prayer is not so much an intellectual one, as one that will heal body and emotions and nerves and heart and mind.

            “Sing a song, take a walk, have a bath, converse with a friend” was the classical advice for heaviness of spirit. Perhaps relaxing in an easy chair with your favorite music, or seeking a spot where you can hear the rustle of the leaves, feel the wind in your hair – whatever brings release to your over-taut nerves – this it is imperative to discover about yourself and ever more imperative that you do!

            We are all witnesses and missionaries of one kind or another. What does this mean? Jesus said it on Easter Day: “As the Father has sent me, so I  send you” (Jn 20:21). What was the message Jesus brought? “I have come to bring you life; I have come that your joy may be full. My “Abba” knows all about your inhumanity to each other; I have experienced it all in my heart and in my flesh. But our God is loving and forgiving. My “Abba” is offering you mercy, abundant life, joy....” Since we are sent as Jesus was sent, our lives must somehow give this same message. How can a life that is obviously breaking under its burdens give that message? Where has our joy gone? How are we to find it again?

            I advise enjoyment. Whereas Jesus said, “If any come after me, let them deny themselves.”  Am I preaching heresy? I do not think so. What does deny yourself mean? It seems to me that it speaks of getting off the throne on which I am so prone to perch and let God get back on. It seems to me, that to deny myself means that I need to forget myself – at least a bit! That I remember that he is the saviour; I am not! He wants my co-operation; not my substitution of myself for him.

            René Voillaume said that the asceticism appropriate to our time is an acquired aptitude to keep ourselves in a psychological and physical condition that will allow us to be truly present to what is here and now. Such presence requires great inner freedom. Will I have this by simply working and praying? There is an element that is absolutely necessary to being completely human (which is what God made us to be) and that is an element of being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy.

            In Poverbs 8, Wisdom is described as being present when God was creating the universe in a spirit of play! Ponder that. Play comes naturally to the child. We may have to relearn it. Observe a child at play: What absorption! Are the child’s thoughts on him/herself? Of course not; the child is totally concentrated on the toy, the insect, the piece of string that is the object of his/her delight.  My image of true Christian enjoyment is that of a child on the floor, paying no attention to his/her parents whatsoever, playing with what has caught his/her attention for the moment. The parents do not feel slighted because the child is paying no attention to them; they are delighting in their little one’s delight. But let them leave the room and play disappears in howls for father and mother.

            This is a kind of parable for what we need: we can play before God only if, like the child on the floor, we allow ourselves to be secure in God’s love. After all, the distinguishing mark of Christian prayer is that we can call God “Abba.” Basic then to the spirit of play for us is trust in God, in God’s saving love, in God’s unconditioned, unconditional, steadfast love for us. “While we were yet sinners, God sent God’s only Son.” God loves us not because we deserve to be loved, not because we are good; but quite simply because God is good.

            Play was long regarded as the virtue of eutrapelia; philosophers have noted that we can deny most abstractions if we like – justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God; we can deny seriousness but we cannot deny play. It is a reality found not only in humans but also in animals. Play is something we do freely – without constraint; it has a quality of a-partness from our usual occupations; it transports us into a dimension other than that of the daily humdrum. Play, therefore, has the power to make us forget ourselves; to take ourselves a little less seriously. It helps us to crawl out from under the world’s burdens which we are all too prone to assume.

            Nietzsche is supposed to have said: “The trick is not to arrange a festival; but to find people who can enjoy it.” Have we lost our capacity for enjoyment in the seriousness with which we confront life and its difficulties?

            Do we not indeed have to give thought to how we can recapture our ability to enjoy? Joy is not possible without love. One who loves nothing and nobody cannot possibly rejoice, no matter how desperately one craves joy. When we take joy in something, we are saying that it is good. Is not that what God said in face of God’s creation? When we affirm any part of life, we are really affirming life itself. We are saying with our hearts: “Yes, life is good!” Is this not worship? To recognize that the works of God’s hands are good?

            Jesus declared that he came to bring us life, abundant life, that our joy might be full: where is our joy in face of this life? Is there not a connection between our confidence in Jesus as the saviour and our experience of joy?

            In the process of cultivating a spirit of joy, of play, I have reflected at length on something I have been trying to do for the last few years and which I have been suggesting to others: that is, to set aside at least one day a week for enjoyment, rest, relaxation, prayer. I am convinced that the necessary preparation for getting in touch with our own hearts and the God who dwells there is to give ourselves the time and opportunity to loosen our hold on the burdens of daily life, to forget ourselves and become quiet enough to hear the deep voice within us – the voice that tells us as it did for Juliana of Norwich: “all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

            A spirit of fun, of play, of enjoyment and of worship are closely related. Such a spirit was well understood in the Middle Ages. The same creativity that covered Western Europe with its great worshiping cathedrals lifting magnificent spires and hearts to God, also carved the grinning gargoyles and the naughty figures that often adorned the stalls of the monks and the canons in those same cathedrals! But it is in the spirit of the ancient Sabbath that I think I have really found  confirmation for this notion: that it is by setting aside a definite time to rediscover the capacity to enjoy, that we can cultivate at the same time a true spirit of worship. For the Israelite, the Sabbath, day of delight, was the important festival; it was the only one mentioned in the decalogue.

            There is a delightful story which gives us an initial insight into the spirit of the Sabbath:

 On Friday night, we are told, the Jew is accompanied home from the synagogue by two  angels, one good and one evil. When the Jew enters the house and finds the lights kindled and the house radiant with the joyous Sabbath atmosphere, the good angel blesses the home and says, ‘May this home always be an abode of happiness’; and the wicked angel grudgingly answers, ‘Amen.’ But if the Jew, on coming home, finds the Sabbath lights unlit, and the house filled with gloom, the wicked angel curses the house and says, ‘May this home never know happiness’; then the good angel weeps and says perforce, ‘Amen.’
            Here it is evident that light, joy, gladness are the marks of the Sabbath spirit. The Jews lavished much love on the Sabbath; they personified it as a lovely bride, a charming princess, a gracious Queen who was to be received into the home and the synagogue with hymns of welcome.

            The Sabbath was instituted as a day of rest for all: for humans, animals, masters, slaves. But the mere cessation of labour would have served the body alone. The Sabbath was therefore made into a day of holiness – wholeness – in order to inspire and ennoble the life of the observant Jews. This was no bleak and dismal Calvinist Sunday, but a day of joyful rest. While physical exertions were prohibited, spiritual and intellectual occupations were even prescribed. The day assumed a serenity and a holy peace that made it a day of delight. The Talmud tells us that the Holy One said to Moses that God’s treasure house contained a precious gift for Israel; the name of the gift was the Sabbath. And indeed, so it was for the Jews. It strengthened them and enabled them to face a hostile world with dignity, courage, faith and hope. Poverty, insecurity, constant humiliation could not destroy the optimism of the Jews who celebrated the Sabbath. As one rabbi put it: “Not only did Israel keep the Sabbath; the Sabbath kept Israel.” The sweet memory of the preceding Sabbath and the anticipation of the coming one transcended all the hard realities of the other six days.

            The Jewish home was transformed by the Sabbath. It was prepared for with much cleaning and polishing and preparing of delicacies. On Friday, the house began to look different: money, cooking utensils, sewing kits were put away. Good clothes were donned. The table was covered with a white cloth. On it were set the candle sticks with candles, the wine bottle, the goblet, and sometimes too, even Sabbath flowers were placed in readiness.

            The Sabbath was ushered in by the mother as she lighted the candles. This act was preceded by dropping a coin into the box for the needy and accompanied by a prayer for God’s blessing on the whole family. But the love within the family radiated out to the stranger and the lonely one: there was always an extra place in readiness at the family table. No one was to be excluded from the light, joy, and good cheer of this blessed day. Not only special dishes, but special songs, unique in their blending of the sacred and the secular, the serious and the playful marked this special evening. Gone were the cares and the worries of the week. The greeting “Shabbat Shalom” was heard on all sides, with its lovely response: “A blessed and peaceful Sabbath to you!”

            By observing the Sabbath, the Jews paid tribute to the Creator and reaffirmed their faith in the creative powers of humanity. Since the Creator rested from work on the seventh day, so too, the Jews, glorified the dignity of human work by their six days of labour; and by resting on the seventh, they raised the dignity of the human personality. Freedom from the enslaving cares of earning their daily bread allowed for freedom for their human God-given creative faculties. The Sabbath, likewise, prevented learning from becoming the domain of rabbis and scholars and made learning and piety the heritage of the whole people; for rich and poor, learned and simple all became literate through the Sabbath day observances.

            The afternoon was given over to walking, social calls, reading. The meals were all marked by joy and relaxation. The last meal, however, the meal that was to dismiss Queen Sabbath, was tinged with a shadow of regret; but the day was prolonged as far as possible. Not until three stars were visible to the naked eye did the mother recite the well-known prayer: “O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, guard thy people Israel for thy praise.” Delights of the eye, the taste buds, the mind, the heart, the spirit, the joys of home and friends were all part of this day of worship. But the final dismissal held one more delight. The sense of smell was regarded as the most spiritual of the senses, and it was with the heating of the sweet-smelling spices that Queen Sabbath departed accompanied by a song of longing for the Messiah.

            I have presumed to give this rather detailed description of the Sabbath because I find it so full of significance and instruction for us today. Without rest, relaxation, delight of the senses, of the mind and heart, can we be truly free enough to affirm that life is good? I think it is essential for our health of mind and body, of psyche and spirit that we all take some time in the week (at least one day, perhaps more!) when we allow ourselves to enjoy the good things of life, the good things that God has made, the delights of friendship and of solitude. Whatever form our relaxation or enjoyment takes is not so important; but it should be such that we can be drawn out of ourselves; that we can recapture the spirit of play, the spirit of a child who trusts its parent, the spirit of human beings echoing the words of their Creator: “It is good!” Is not this true worship?

            If we allow ourselves to become workaholics, or feel guilty because there are needs in this world to which we are not responding – cannot respond – are we truly believing that Jesus is the Messiah? Do we think that we must carry the whole burden of the world’s ills? I think that, when we allow ourselves to get into this state, Jesus’ command to deny oneself is simply asking us to get out of the driver’s seat and let him in. Then perhaps we can, from time to time, sit back and become aware of the beauty of life that is before us and that we often fail to see. Perhaps we shall find ourselves spontaneously blessing God for the gift of life.

            Jesus said he came that our joy might be full. What would happen if we were to change one letter in the word “enjoyment” and were to make it “in-joy-ment”? What if we were to really live in joy, Christian joy? For this, I think we need to take our own humble step in this direction by fidelity to our own private Sabbath. Worn out Christians, depressed Christians – what message do such lives convey? Is this the “Good News” we are talking about? Some wag remarked that although we realize that we are a community of sinners, we haven’t got time to sin any more! I’m not advising time out for this kind of activity; but I am firmly convinced that without our share of fun, laughter and friends, we will be too tense and nervously ragged to be able to enjoy the beauty of solitude; we will simply be lost in our own inner wilderness.

            Jesus’ first recorded miracle was not to heal a blind person, or to cure a leper, or to restore a dead child to a widowed mother; but to spare a young couple embarrassment on their wedding day: a needless miracle, some might say. A most significant miracle! To a party already well under way was given better and more lavish wine. Who could have imagined the saviour of the world beginning his ministry in this way?

            If you still need convincing that enjoyment and worship are intimately connected, read the gospels: see Jesus “take time out” for meals with friends, walks through the fields, boating with his friends, the apostles. And when the rigid Pharisees tried to impose their interpretation of the Sabbath on him, he reminded them of what they knew: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

            I close with the wise and lovely words from the Talmud: “People shall be called to account for all the permitted pleasures they failed to enjoy.”

Also on this site on a similar theme you might confer:
Leisure, A Good Form Of Penance