Is America a "No-Vacation Nation?" A Meditation God’s Command that We Rest

One of the remarkable facts about the way God made us is that He seems to have made it necessary that we sleep one third of our day. God could have done otherwise, but this is what he actually did. Further, God went on to command that on one day out of seven we were to cease, to rest. The morning was for the rest we call worship and the remainder of the day was to be spent with family and enjoying the fruit of our labor. God wasn’t messing around. He commanded it:

  1. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed (Ex 23:12)
  2. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. (Ex 31:15)
  3. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest (Ex 34:21)
  4. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death. (Ex 35:2)
  5. There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD (Lev 23:3)

Does it sound like the Lord is repeating himself? He is. But sometimes (most times) we’re slow to hear. He has written sleep into our physical nature and rest into our work week. The Lord also prescribed a series of feasts or holy days (holiday is just a mispronunciation of Holy Day), and here to the people were to cease, pray and celebrate.

We Americans are miserable at this. We are hard workers, and that is good, but what good is it to work hard and never be able  to enjoy the fruit of our work? DO we work to live, or live to work? Of all the commandments, you’d think we’d get this one right. God commands and prescribes a certain amount of rest and yet we seem to prefer the status of bond servants. How strange.

Consider some of the following excerpts from an article that appeared recently at entitled, Is America a No-Vacation Nation? I have included a few comments of my own in red normal text.

Besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker bee gets two or three precious weeks off out of a whole year to relax and see the world — much less than what people in many other countries receive. And even that amount of vacation often comes with strings attached.

Some U.S. companies don’t like employees taking off more than one week at a time. Others expect them to be on call or check their e-mail even when they’re lounging on the beach or taking a hike in the mountains.

“I dream of taking a cruise or a trip to Europe, but I can’t imagine getting away for so long,” said Don Brock, a software engineer who lives in suburban Washington.

The running joke at Brock’s company is that a vacation just means you work from somewhere else. So he takes one or two days off at a time and loses some vacation each year. Only 57% of U.S. workers use up all of the days they’re entitled to.

It’s a totally different story in other parts of the world.

Nancy Schimkat, an American who lives in Weinheim, Germany, said her German husband, an engineer, gets six weeks of paid vacation a year, plus national holidays — the norm. His company makes sure he takes all of it. [Wow, I honestly don’t know what I’d do with six weeks]

It’s typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August when “most of the country kind of closes down,” Schimkat said. That’s the time for big trips, perhaps to other parts of Europe, or to Australia or North America. Germans might also book a ski holiday in the winter and take a week off during Easter. [Yes, it’s great when the whole country agrees. It used to be more like that in this country when most things were closed on Sunday and major holidays]

Schimkat’s family back in the United States teases her that she’s spoiled. But when she tells Germans that workers in the U.S. usually get two weeks of vacation a year, they cringe.

“[Germans] work very hard, but then they take their holiday and really relax. … It’s more than just making money for Germans, it’s about having time for your family and it’s about having time to wind down.”

A big reason for the difference is that paid time off is mandated by law in many parts of the world. [OK, but please don’t ask the government in, we don’t need any more regulations].

Germany is among more than two dozen industrialized countries — from Australia to Slovenia to Japan — that require employers to offer four weeks or more of paid vacation to their workers…. Finland, Brazil and France are the champs, guaranteeing six weeks of time off.

But employers in the United States are not obligated under federal law to offer any paid vacation, so about a quarter of all American workers don’t have access to it, government figures show. Most U.S. companies, of course, do provide vacation as a way to attract and retain workers.

But the fear of layoffs and the ever-faster pace of work mean many Americans are reluctant to be absent from the office — anxious that they might look like they’re not committed to their job. Or they worry they won’t be able to cope with the backlog of work waiting for them after a vacation. [There’s the word: FEAR]

[In addition], working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success… [Yeah, but what good is success when you never enjoy it?]

So despite research documenting the health and productivity benefits of taking time off, a long vacation can be undesirable, scary, unrealistic or just plain impossible for many U.S. workers. [Note again a particular word: “scary”]

[But] “There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage,” said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork. He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden — a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation — came in second. [OK, pay attention, this is important data – hard work alone doesn’t necessarily cut the deal].

“I’m in no way anti-capitalist, I think the market does a lot of good things, but the Europeans understand that the market also has its failings and that when simply left completely to its own devices, it doesn’t produce  perfect results.”

But is more government regulation the answer? The debate rages on.

Well, I must admit that I am very poor at taking vacations. I like what I do and I am a “home body.” I also hate to travel. I also think that six weeks paid vacation is way over the top. But all that said, I need to do better. If for no other reason, my people and my staff need a break from me! But the main reason is, that God commands hours of rest each day, one day each week and seasonal observances of holidays.

God says, “Stop!….Rest!” But why? Here are some likely reasons:

1. Because, like any loving Father he wants us to enjoy some of the gifts he offers. Imagine if you gave your child a gift and they just hurriedly said thanks, tossed it up on the shelf and never took time to enjoy it. Is that why you gave it? Is this really the proper attitude to have about gifts from God, that we never enjoy them?

2. In so resting we are refreshed and also let others rest and be refreshed, especially the poor. A great sadness of the modern age is that, since we demand the convenience of Sunday shopping etc., many who are poorer have to work. One of the articulations of the Sabbath rest surely applies here: so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed (Ex 23:12)<

3. Some gifts are only given while we rest. Psalm 127 says, In vain is your earlier rising,  your going later to rest,  you who toil for the bread you eat;  when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. Exactly what gifts these are may be mysterious to us. Surely our bodies benefit from rest,  but the psalm may also refer to other hidden gifts, like serenity, and spiritual insights that are given only while we sleep. Perhaps God whispers wisdom and spiritual truth into the depths of our soul while we sleep. Perhaps it is only in rest that we finally connect the dots to make sense out of the many events of our life. Perhaps only rest and vacation can give us the necessary perspective we need and restore us to proper priorities.

4. Scripture also speaks of the Sabbath and holy days as a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money (e.g. Neh 13:15-22; Amos 8:4-6). The Nehemiah text is too long to produce here, but Amos says:  Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

5. But here comes the subtle reason: God wants to remedy our fear. Note that I highlighted the reference to fear twice in the article above.  In the end, the call to keep the Sabbath holy, and to take our holiday,  is a call to trust. Although it might seem that rest is a natural human tendency, it will also be seen that the opposite is more often true.

Many fears accompany the cessation of work: Will competitors surpass me while I rest? Will I fail to complete all my duties? Will others amass more wealth or power while I fall behind? How can I pay all my bills or finance my lifestyle if I do not work more hours? Will my children’s college education be possible if I do not work every day? Will I loose my job or not get one at all if I do not agree to work Sundays and scrimp my necessary vacation?

In effect God says, “I want you to trust me. Take one day and set it aside entirely. Get adequate rest, take some vacation. Do no work on such days. Cease striving, let go of the controls. Rest, worship, consider your blessings, enjoy them and give thanks for them. Spend time with your family and friends. I promise you that you will accomplish more with the six days remaining that you ever would with all seven, 48 weeks, than the 52, with the reasonable work hours rather than endless overtime. Understand and trust that if you are faithful to my commandment to rest and worship on the Sabbath and other days I will bless you.” (cf Jer 17:24; Is 56:4; Dt 28:9ff; Ex 19:5).

The gift of our time to God is a precious one indeed. But why should we fear to give it to the author of all time? Trust in God.

As you look to some vacation this year, consider well that to some extent, God commands it. I don’t know that he commanded six weeks of vacation. But it is very clear that God has written into our nature a need for eight hours sleep each day. He has commanded one day of rest where we do not strive or earn money, but just trust, worship and enjoy. Further, in commanding placing numerous religious feasts and festivals on the ancient calendar, God also seems to sanction and even prescribe some extended periods of rest we call vacations or holidays (a.k.a. Holy Days).


Photo Credit: Leadhership via Creative Commons

35 Replies to “Is America a "No-Vacation Nation?" A Meditation God’s Command that We Rest”

  1. Oh, dear, this is a tough one and I needed to hear your words. I also like what I do and call it God’s work, but He did command to take rest. I should learn to trust Him more. We’ll often cook a big meal on Sunday but that also means a big cleaning up 🙂 I wish I could take some lessons from my Orthodox Jewish and Mormon friends who really keep their Sabbath’s holy. I find it difficult to withdraw from the secular world. For instance, our children love ball games, and often they are scheduled on a Sunday. So after Church, we’re out on the fields. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing because we are enjoying ourselves, but umpires have to work the games.

    I don’t believe the govt. should make any laws — I also worked in Germany and ended up using only 3 out of the 6 weeks of paid vacation. In retrospect, I should’ve taken that time off to see the sights. I regret that I wasn’t religious at the time because now I wish I could take a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorge. Sigh.

    Thank you for all the work you do, Father. I hope you get some R&R too.

    1. Thanks for these insights. It is clearly tough for us Americans with the pace of life being what it is. Those Sunday games really frustrate me, especially when they are sponsored by CYO. But the CYO folks all reply that they have to use Sundays since there aren’t enough fields available to get the games done on Saturday.

  2. 1) PLEASE NOTE: there is no command here to take 5 weeks of vacation!!!!! there is only a command to rest on the sabbath. I have found that doing this well is key to keeping my mood and energy up.

    2) this may sound funny, but maybe americans do a better job of observing the sabbath, so that they need less vacation?!!?

    1. Well I think the article was reasonably clear that there is no command to take 5 weeks vacation. However, there is an implicit instruction on vacation in that God did command of the Jewish people that they keep certain feasts, a couple of which lasted a week (e.g. Booths). As for American’s observing the Sabbath, my own view is that we do a terrible job in observing it.

      1. Maybe bob kay meant “a better job” than the Europeans, not a good job….

        Weren’t there periods when the Jews were commanded to take a whole YEAR as a Sabbath?

  3. My husband rarely takes vacations. Sometimes he takes a day here or there so he has a three or four day weekend. His pay stubs show all the vacation he’s entitled to, and its astronomical. This past week he had to work an extra day, and that happens every 5 or 6 weeks. Fortunately, he will retire is 18 months or so.

    I, on the other hand, am retired. I consider this leg of my life’s journey to be one dedicated to rest, rest for the sake of deepening my relationship with God and preparing for the end of my life.

    Most of my working life was spent in teaching/education. I had summers off as well as Easter/spring and Christmas vacations. Msgr. Pope, I had absolutely not trouble keeping occupied. It was a good arrangement for parenthood, too, because my vacations coincided with my daughter’s vacations.

    Sabbath time is necessary for good mental and physical health, not to mention spiritual growth.

  4. This is something I’ve been pondering for awhile. The Lord’s Sabbath of the Old Testament was Saturday, while the first day of the week was Sunday. Now that Sunday has become the Son’s Day and the Christian Sabbath (well, I’m glad America attempts to keep Saturday/Sunday rest together), where do we fit in?

    I’ve recently had some interior struggles on spending money for vacations, rather than using that money to further assist someone or give to the Church or just feeling that it’s a weakness that so much time off is needed, but I’m in agreement with my wife that we need them. Thanks for the blog post.

    Your post reminds me of JP2’s views on America’s brand of capitalism:
    “all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power at any price with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others, which are opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbor.”

    1. Not sure I understand your question about where do we fit in?

      As for spending money on vacation, there is need for balance and moderation in things. Going on vacation is an important part of the economy of many areas and does therefore supply for others. We don’t spend ourselves by throwing it down a dark hole, we put it in the hands of others who experience it as income. Of course helping the poor and the Church remain important parts of our budget too.

      1. I reckon I worded it poorly. Shouldn’t we rest both on Saturday and Sunday?

      2. Msgr. correct me if I’m wrong. I like to keep the sabbath and in fact do, I also like to keep the lords day, what could be wrong with that? I have a catholic bible St Joseph edition. In the preface it tells me not to get to caught up with the words as much as you do with the intent of the message.

  5. Hi Monsignor Pope, I’m a reader from Dallas. I like to keep up with your blog because you’re reflections are deep in Scripture while being faithful to Tradition and Magisterium. Please continue the great work. Furthermore, this is a topic that I think is very important. I wanted your brief observations about two questions:

    1) Given the Sunday rest, don’t you think we should all plan the rest of our weeks in such a way that we are adequately removed from the busy-ness of daily life? Even if that means doing our grocery shopping, mowing the yard, and shopping at the mall on other days/nights? I sometimes am surprised at how much people squeeze into the week by treating Sunday as another day on which to do work: they also seem stressed about it most of the time!

    2) What about the Fathers of the Church, and saints of all time, who slept very little? Do you consider them the exception that proves the rule, so to speak?

    God bless you and your ministries.

    Matthew Wade

    1. As for me, I try to avoid shopping on Sundays. As for other activities, eg mowing the grass, I would think that some (as I once did) enjoy mowing the grass and working in the yard. IOW, it would depend on weather they experienced the activity in question as work or a form or relaxation and/or hobby.

      As for the Desert Fathers, I think you are right. Some receive the grace to live on the extreme and one might just see it as that, not something to imitate but just something to note that they did and were able to do as a special gift of God, not as a practice to imitate.

      1. I enjoy some housework, and much yardwork, so consider those okay for Sundays.

        I was scolded in the confessional for considering that grocery shopping on the Sabbath might not be okay.

  6. Hi Monsignor Pope,
    About 2 years ago we started to take the 7th day rest seriously. Now on Sundays we only go to Church (2 of them since my wife is Orthodox) and take it easy at home. I must admit it was a bit tough at first – and occassionally we do end up grabbing something from the store when we have forgotten something – but it has been gotten very easy to now say “it’s Sunday’ and, technically, do “nothing”. It has actually made a subtle but very noticeable difference in our lives.

    Love the blogs.

    1. I started doing this about 5 years ago, the only thing I vary is resting on Saturday, or Sunday.
      It’s called priorities, listening to your creator should be high on your list.

  7. People in America will tell you they do not want more regulation, so the Govt. should not mandate vacation. I agree. BUT. Isn’t it true that because of federal regulations, the money that flows in to our federal govt., our budget is around 2 trillion dollars? Forget the fact that the feds have to borrow 40% of what they do not have, that only ensures future servitude. Are we at a point in this country that we cannot pass a law favoring as simple an idea as time off? Why? Because the company you work for is already taxed to the max. There is no extra money left for us. I know G.E. did not pay a dime is taxes, but where most of us
    work is small companys. G.E.’s a big company. Most small businesses don’t have 10’s of millions of dollars
    for tax attorneys. We seem to be ok with the idea of being forced to use ethenol in our gasoline. This not only forces food prices to go up, it also causes us to get lower mileage per gallon, causing us to buy more gas and generating even more tax revenue. Same thing with light bulbs, etc., etc.. The list goes on forever. Why does govt. regulation allow itself to borrow over a trillion dollars a year, and thats ok? Personally I think our pritories are out of order. The conversation has been stolen, and we now talk about what the govt. wants us to talk about. As christians we need to educate others about being slaves to evil, evil ideas, which
    enslave us all.

  8. Rest is laying down the labors of own body, mind and heart to recover the strength of God. It’s not just about vacation from our jobs – it is vacation from all the things that distract us from our Creator. We load our body, mind, and heart with so much that we do not need. Periods of rest are the only way to leave them aside, be quiet in ourselves, and re-center ourselves on what God wants for us.

    I am astonished that so many people do not take their vacation days – is there any clearer sign of how we become distracted with work and, perhaps, that our egos make us think “I have to be here or the company will collapse”. Take your full alotment of days – and spend them with family, friends, or with God in prayer.

  9. Hello Monsignor:

    Thank you for responding to this topic on the importance of humans finding time to rest, especially by observing God’s holy days of rest. As I get older, I am growing in awareness about the need for taking time to rest: mentally, physically,and spiritually.

    I try not to do any job-related tasks on Sunday, but sadly I’m not always able to control this situation. I try to plan in advance for these situations so that I don’t neglect the obligation to attend church, or to participate in religious activities such as teaching CCD class. It’s not easy!

    In regard to taking vacations from work, I have many fond memories from my childhood of family vacations. My parents, my older brother, and I would jump into the family car and venture off to various places during our summer break from school to find rest and relaxation from life’s daily grind. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they we teaching my older brother and me how to set aside time to rest, on Sundays as well as on other days of the year. Today, as adult with an extremely stressful job, I treasure this lesson from my childhood.

    Monsignor, I hope that you will take some time from your extremely busy schedule to rest, and be renewed to continue the excellent work that God has blessed you with doing as a pastor and parish priest. Perhaps another trip to the Holy Land may be in store for you! God bless you!

  10. Have you written a blog about observing the sabbath better? Recently I resolved to try to do this, including not indirectly causing others to work- not eating in restaurants, not shopping etc. But that is hard to stick to when I see a friend at church and they suggest we go out for brunch, etc. It would be nice if the part of observing the sabbath that comes AFTER Mass was taught sometimes.

    1. It’s real easy, just do what the bible recommends, no work, not even your animals. The intent would seem to include resturant workers.

  11. Let us all give a great big thank you to the Catholics Church who got us the 5-day work week (although they were aiming for a four-day work week) and who lobbied for Federal holidays.

  12. Rest and vacation are good. I like rest. Too much probably.

    But let’s not conflate rest and vacation, from either a theological or mental health perspective, and the entitlement mentality that one has a right to demand that someone else give you money to do nothing. We have already confused the morality of health care with conflating a human right to seek treatment with forcing other people to pay for it.

    These are two distinct and separate concepts.

    As for vacation, we might all benefit from taking an actual vacation. But instead of retreating from the world, instead of rest and relaxation, many people end up taking high-activity trips, where the amount of their labors equals or exceeds the labor they expend in their jobs.

    As much as I really enjoyed my recent two-week trip to Italy, so busy were we that I welcomed my return to work so that I could get some rest and relaxation.

  13. I’ve never really been on a structured retreat. Does anyone have any suggestions for a retreat near the DC Metro area? Something Ignatian maybe?

  14. We observe Sundays by going to Mass. We pretty much don’t do any shopping on Sundays, although occasionally we do get groceries. Then my husband leaves for work…for the railroad, which is pretty much a 24/7 outfit. At 60, he has only 2 weeks off a year. Pretty pathetic employer. When we married he was in the Navy, and got 30 days leave a year, and it was delightful. (I actually felt guilty about this because I had never known anyone who had a whole month off in their line of work! Typical of the military, we also were separated for weeks, sometimes months at a time due to his deployments.) My teen sons have lifeguard jobs. Because I’ve encouraged them in this, they do not work on Sundays, but they certainly could and probablly would if I wasn’t in the picture. With school, college, and part time jobs, they do not have a single day off except for Sunday.

    Because of my husband’s schedule, I feel like he never has a true full day of rest. There are so many who work taking care of people – medical, emergency, nursing homes. Please give some ideas for them, some of whom are, no doubt, reading your blog!

    If we don’t make an effort to KEEP Sunday for the Lord, we will lose it…first by our own choices, then by government decree.

  15. Great article, Msgr. Pope! We could have done without the cheesy video. It was like putting a Pringle’s potato chip on top of a delectable mango sorbet! 😉

  16. Because I work full-time during the week, the weekends are my only days for doing “everything else.” That means laundry, meal planning, grocery shopping, kids activities/sports (Sat), clothes shopping, church, CCE, planning for the week ahead, put digital photos into the computer, load something to an iPod, make sure kids do homework, and cleaning the house. If we go out of town for the weekend (for business or pleasure) the whole mess is backed up in the week and means some very late nights trying to do what is absolutely necessary until the weekend rolls around again. If I take a few hours to be “un-busy” and read or just sit in front of the tv I feel guilty because there may be laundry waiting to be folded or the bathrooms haven’t been cleaned or the Easter decorations are still sitting out. This is the life God gave me and we do the best we can with the time we have available.

  17. Reminds me of a two picture cartoon where, in the first frame, a fellow is leaning on the handrail of his front porch and commenting that it was the beginning of the weekend and no chores needed doing as he savoured the moment.
    In the second frame he’s sprawled on his lawn with the broken handrail under him and an exasperated look on his face.
    On a somewhat more serious note, the item which really jumped out at me was the one that concludes with a comment on the backlog of work. My father was a mechanic and we never heard him complain about a line up of cars waiting at his work bench his first day back to work after our annual vacation. I guess other mechanics fixed them. All the fears in that item seem to point to fear of favoured accounts, clients, etc falling into someone else’s hands because a worker takes about 2% of the work year off to be with the family. Such phrases as, wage slave, chained to the desk and the like remind me of John 8:31-34.

    1. Maybe also Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 where concerns about financial survival is threatened by devotion and duty to family. And visa versa. Seems like a feeding of obsession/compulsion/self centredness. Not a healthy state.

    2. Sometimes, there is not anyone else to take over when a worker leaves his desk for vacation. My husband MUST keep connected to work during our vacations and on the weekends, because he literally holds three full-time salary positions (being paid for 1.5) in his struggling company. The finances are one of his duties, so if he does not juggle the work (usually about 70 hrs worth a week) he and everyone else at this small business will lose their jobs. The fear is real, and not unreasonable.

      I absolutely agree with this post in theory, but in practice it’s somewhat difficult in this economy that places such a burden on few salaried workers. It’s not so much a matter of being afraid he’ll lose his prestige or clients or anything (he doesn’t work for commission), as being afraid he’ll be responsible for the failure of the company.

      However, we do strive to get him rest, and God steps in regularly to force the issue through technical difficulties/outages, exhaustion, and an understanding boss who insists on taking some of the load so our young family can have some time together.

      1. Thank you Rebecca for this clarity. Indeed it does seem more about the ways in which work has changed (or been changed) that leads to backlogs rather than a worker’s personal ambition, competitiveness or hoarding more than his/her share.
        I admit that, while I meant that the situation was more forced on those who cherished accounts than their self serving attitude, I didn’t really say so in a clear matter.
        What saddens me is the thought of pieces being taken out of the parents’ participation with the rest of the family during vacation.
        The closeness of family and the love motivated teaching and learning for both parents and children is one of God’s great gifts to us and I feel so frustrated to see it get eroded.

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