By Frank Wessling
Summer is vacation time, travel time, visit the family time. All of this takes planning and preparation added to our normal activities, putting more stress than relaxation into some “vacations.”
Getting away from the ordinary is generally good anyway because we need freshness and variety from time to time to avoid turning stale, rigid, even, horrors, boring!
But there is a danger in this time of stimulation and a loosening of routine: It’s so easy to lapse from some of the habits that help keep us healthy, like exercise and eating right. Add to this whatever routine or habit of prayer we have. The busyness of travel and visiting can leave little time for reflection on our experience and personal stillness for prayer.
All of us on vacation might take a lesson from the way well-run religious mission trips arrange their days. The visiting, activities and learning are generally intense, giving everyone in the group more than enough to leave both head and heart highly charged. But each day also has a time for quiet reflection and focus on the purpose of the trip. That purpose is echoed in each person as they realize it affecting their own sense of purpose in life.
Such trips enable participants to get well out of their normal patterns and experience a completely fresh sense of what it means to live and love at our best. By giving up their ordinary selves and letting the mystery of something new take over, they discover a new integration of faith in God-who-is-love. This God is not an alien above and beyond, hard to reach, severe in judgment. This God is dynamic, always present yet hidden in the work of compassionate service, right here right now available in and through our own openness to others.
Something this dramatic may seem beyond the scope of an ordinary vacation. It need not be. Even if we only visit family or return to familiar places, those people have changed, circumstances have changed, the places are not exactly as they were. There is always something new, even if only the differences brought on by age in Grandma and the cousins. We notice these changes and they become food for reflection — and prayer — if we allow the time.
There will be something to give up and something to enter as mystery. As simple and ordinary as it might seem, this is the basic formula given by Jesus for the constant conversion that turns us into saints. Those who give up their lives will find eternal life, he said — if only we enter this dynamic field of energy.
So Grandma is older, slower, forgetting things, needing more help. Time is forcing itself on our attention by announcing its passage — for all of us. The old will not stay, and how will we live with that awareness. We can’t change it. What is ahead?
Such a reflection isn’t different from that done on a mission trip to Haiti, for example. It’s the same dynamic that calls us into the mystery of our own future. Will that be an effort to keep the old ways, to insist on more of the same? Or will it be a courageous step of faith into new life freshened by new perspectives on love.
In one of his early books, “The Ascent to Truth,” Thomas Merton wrote on true and false mysticism, what we might think of as rich and poor spiritual life. In one passage on the “gift” of divine contemplation, he says it is usually given “to those who are most generous in emptying themselves of every attachment to satisfactions that fall outside the periphery of pure faith” (emphasis added). The difficult step in prayer as in other aspects of the spiritual life is this emptying ourselves of attachments, everything we think of as possessions, including our attitudes, habits and all that seems to define “Me.”
Difficult, yes; impossible, no, not even for we ordinary folks. But it takes practice, which is what we do whenever we pray unselfishly. Since summer and vacation time often present us with new experience ripe for turning into just such spiritual growth, we need to be ready. This is a reminder.