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Christians, Culture and Recreation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 10, 2005

Over the years I’ve noticed that those of us who are committed Catholics occasionally act as if we distrust even the simplest of life’s pleasures. Sometimes this takes the form of a disdain for literature and the arts, even as expressions of Christian culture. At other times it shows itself in a condemnation of any recreational activity which lacks a specific Catholic formational purpose. Life is impoverished by both these attitudes.

Faith and Culture

I remember first encountering a disdain for literature and the arts among the committed shortly after I began to publish the quarterly academic journal Faith & Reason. The journal was typically devoted to Catholic studies of various issues in theology, philosophy and the social sciences. I polled the readers in 1978 to see if they were interested in an issue devoted to fiction and poetry. The viewpoint of many who provided feedback was simply this: “I’m too busy fighting the good fight to be distracted by such frivolities. If you can’t give me ammunition for the fight I’m in, don’t bother publishing.”

There are, of course, two related problems in this response. The first is the implicit assumption that only logical, apologetical work is valuable to the Faith. The second is the equally implicit assumption that the Gospel calls us to a life in which we are bound to abandon all goods which cannot immediately be used in a formally Catholic way. I suspect the first assumption has been laid to rest by both the long pontificate of John Paul II and the nearly universal experience of Catholics during this same period. Before and after he became pope, John Paul made it clear that literature, the arts (and many other things besides) were vital to the establishment of a culture of life, a culture rooted in the Divine mysteries and therefore enriched by every authentic human good. At the same time, Christians everywhere slowly realized that they were not engaged in a long series of unfortunate policy disputes but in a culture war.

This shift in awareness was reflected in our own work at Trinity Communications as users began asking for a broader range of resources to help them inculturate the Faith in the domestic Church. The shift from our original PetersNet.net web site to CatholicCulture.org is simply one indicator of a larger trend.

Making Things Catholic?

I’m not sure that the error of the second assumption has become equally obvious—the assumption that a true and heartfelt response to God calls us either to take formal Catholic possession of every good or give it up. Again, one common result of this assumption is the insistence that Catholics ought not to indulge in recreation without giving it a specifically Catholic formational purpose. In this view, all forms of recreation must be formally and specifically Christianized.

What else are we to make of ourselves when we cannot take a group hike without insisting that everyone say the Divine Mercy Chaplet along the way, or cannot sing together unless Catholic hymns are introduced, or cannot let our kids enjoy themselves without insisting on a specific spiritual focus, or cannot watch a movie without afterwards leading a discussion of its Catholic significance? Are no secular carols to be allowed at Christmas parties? Must entertaining reading deliver a clear Catholic moral to be acceptable? Are music, the arts and crafts worthwhile only when used to shape specifically religious works?

Have you ever gone to a social gathering of Catholic friends and gotten into a wonderful discussion only to have your host suddenly announce that it was time to stop for the Rosary? Have you ever been that host? For some of us—at least some of the time—the idea of enjoying created things for the sake of God means that all activities must be invested with a formal or external Catholic meaning, through which one can publicly work toward salvation. This is a significant error.

Remembering the Interior Life

The excesses of this error can be avoided by placing greater value on the interior life. First, it is in the interior life alone that the work of faith must be carried on unceasingly. This is not a requirement of our external activity. All of us have interior lives by virtue of our baptism, and our growth in grace is marked by mysterious movements known only to God. Success here requires not only a sound external regimen but a delicate freedom, including freedom from clumsy impositions by others.

Second, Christians must have confidence in grace, confidence that a single free turning of the will to God is worth more than any number of external religious gestures. Sometimes this means allowing a soul to flower in its own way. Sometimes it means recognizing that recreational activity may be better transformed through the presence of God in the lives of the baptized than through the external imposition of a specifically Catholic structure.

A comparison may help in grasping this emphasis, which is so difficult to express. Just as a husband and wife can never “take a break” from living the love they have for each other, so too there is no legitimate “break” possible in the interior life with God. But we might regard as odd a husband who insists that his wife punctuate every activity with a formal ceremony of affection. We might legitimately wonder whether he lacked confidence, and we might even accuse him of so badgering his wife with external obligations as to inhibit the free interior gift which ought to be the essence of her devotion. Christianity begins with the fundamental truth that God desires not our rituals but our hearts.

Enjoying Creation and Resting in God

A second fundamental truth of Christianity is that creation is good, so that love of created things is also good. Not only is enjoyment of these goods right in itself but any other attitude betrays ingratitude. What Catholics are to guard against is not love of earthly goods per se but inordinate love. Presented with so many good things, both material and spiritual, each person must recognize the hierarchy of goods and of being, and must avoid an affection for a lower good which interferes with his love and duty to a higher. To use all goods properly is to recognize both their intrinsic goodness and their proper value, and to recognize that the highest and only infinite good is God. This interior recognition, and a life based upon it, is what it means to enjoy things for God’s sake.

It follows that enjoying things for the sake of God does not mean that we cannot enjoy anything properly unless we are externally preoccupied with its relationship to God. A simple interior joy in God’s gifts, at least partly because they are God’s gifts, is actually worth far more. Still less does enjoying things for the sake of God mean that we cannot enjoy things properly unless we can somehow channel that enjoyment into useful instruction about God or His precepts. Such an attitude reflects a lack of trust: either a denial that God has made all things good or a fear that God’s grace is insufficient to keep us in His presence. Somehow, we have to add something.

A third fundamental Christian truth is that our destiny is to rest in God for all eternity. For this reason, sound preparation demands that we learn now not only how to draw close to God but also how to rest in Him. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh you shall rest. There is a rhythm to the spiritual life that includes both periods of hard work and periods of relaxation. To be sure, we need to spend a great deal of time and energy in praying for grace, disciplining ourselves, rooting out vice, developing better habits, and working for the benefit of our neighbor and the glory of God. But we also need to spend time simply resting, and thanking God for it.

Keeping Our Balance

Because grace perfects nature, a Catholic at play will not be like a pagan at play. But neither will he turn play into work. If we truly trust in God, we will be willing to accept His gifts with gratitude, delighting in the many goods around us, resting in His presence, freely responding to His love, content to know that He sees our joy. We will have no need to confuse this recreational joy with a spiritual or corporal work of mercy, let alone turn it into a catechism lesson. Nor will we feel bound to intrude upon either the joy or the freedom of others by seeking to impose a duty or apply a moral.

Now, with respect to the examples cited above, I do not wish to go too far. Just as a true gentleman discerns in every situation how to turn things to the advantage of others while keeping them at their ease, so too the true Catholic should develop a certain sensitivity about when to work and when to relax, and when to help others to do the same. This sensitivity comes from being attuned to the interior life, with the delicate appreciation of freedom this implies. Certainly all that we do ought to be done in union with Christ. Just as clearly, we have a great need for work. But the greatest lesson of the interior life is that everything does not depend on us. To be fully Catholic, we must also learn to let God be God. We must learn to rest.

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