On Vacation and contemplation

On Vacation and contemplation

During the summer  months in 1996, John Paul II spoke about vacation and its to contemplation. He pointed to the spiritual meaning of rest and recalled the passage from Genesis — on the seventh day the Lord rested from his work. Rest from work, there is the . But many people do not take a rest from work. For many of us, vacation is either something to be dispensed with (employers will cash it out after all) or something to be planned out with numerous activities. So the of vacation and contemplation seems incongruous.

Here are some of Pope John Paul II’s thoughts on vacation and rest: “In presenting us with the Lord who blesses the day dedicated par excellence to rest, the Bible wants to make us notice the need that man has to dedicate a part of his time to experiencing the freedom of things, to examining himself and cultivating a sense of his own greatness and dignity inasmuch as he is God’s image.  . .  . Vacations should not be seen as a simple evasion, that impoverishes and dehumanizes, but rather as significant moments in the very existence of the person. In moments of rest, and especially during vacation, man is invited to become aware of the fact that work is a means  and not the end of life, and he has the opportunity to discover the beauty of silence as a space in which to find himself in order to open himself to acknowledgment and prayer. Man, freed from the pressing tasks of daily  life, has the opportunity to rediscover his own contemplative dimension recognizing God’s imprints in nature and especially in other human beings. This is an experience that opens him to a renewed attention to people who live near  him, beginning with his family.” (Angelus, July 21, 1996)

This is a very rich passage and worth expounding.

We must dedicate our time for this purpose; it does not happen, especially not in the world of total work such as ours. Do we experience the “freedom of things”? Our busy schedule of work propels us past the things of this world; we stop only to use things. The freedom of things, what does it mean? Things have a weight, a beauty, a “glory demanding to be recognized” (Maritain). Iris Murdoch wrote a memorable passage on art as a “spiritual discipline” —

“By opening our eyes we do not necessarily see what confronts us. We are anxiety ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self‑preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. . . . The appreciation of beauty in art or nature is not only the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is an entry into the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real. It shows us the world with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not use to looking at the real world at all, looking at the world with a clarity that does not belong to the self‑centered rush of ordinary life. It is important too that great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self.”  from The Sovereignty of Good

Vacation can be a time to see “the world with a clarity which startles and delights us.” Trees, stars, mountains, ocean. I would also add — traces of the past, of those who went before. One thing I love about America is how every small town  (and large) puts out historical markers and preserves historical sites. I enjoy meandering through America this way. I recently enjoyed standing in that place where Mr. Lincoln first entered into public service and made his first protest against slavery (I just stood at the old state capitol building in Vandalia, Illinois, see ) It may be small, but the place evokes wonder and gratitude. Mountains and oceans, always a place for rest,  speak for themselves; but this small town memory, I also take to be “the freedom of things.”

We are often criticized in this country for being a culture of cars and for our mobility. But there is another side to it. How I have enjoyed my travels across and through America in this small town meandering. How it s us to the past, to others, to the common land and joins our narrative. Even old Route 66 has become a monument of American mobility, yet now fragmented and grown over with weeds. Sic transit gloria mundi — even the allure of the road and sparkling cars. There are deeper trails. I discovered to my surprise on the genealogical trails, my Scottish ancestors, McVeys, came to America in the mid 1700s, and every single generation moved to the next state over. Amazing — there it is — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana. I do not know much about them; but I suspect their reasons for moving were varied and included opportunity, adventure, love, war.

Perhaps Maritain had something else in mind when he coined the phrase “contemplation at the crossroads.” But I think these sturdy pioneers, some of them religious, some of them not, had much that sparked their wonder during their sojourns. The thought of their hardy lives sparks mine.

Cars and roads will not keep us from contemplation. But constant work, an attitude of self-sufficiency, and worry about the next acquisition will. So it may be salutary to hit the road. And watch for those sparks of wonder — off in the purple horizon, in the dim lit forests, at the side of the road, and in every town you enter. I hope we never neglect summer vacation. High gas prices and exorbitant airfares may hurt us more than we know.

I have assumed all along, but better say it now, one does not go alone. Pope John Paul II spoke of “a renewed attention to people who live near  him, beginning with his family.” You do not need my commentary on this feature, both in its deep challenge and its rich reward..

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