The spiritual benefits of prayerful play

Did the Holy Family take vacations? I can hear the answer now (spoken, no doubt, in a huffy tone of voice): “Certainly not. There wasn’t any Disneyland in Galilee back then. And even if there had been, these were simple, hard-working folk, with nothing left over for vacation trips.” 

prayerful vacation
Shutterstock

I expect that’s true. But even though it is, the question’s not as simple-minded as it may sound. Look at Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 2. 

“Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was 12 years old, they went up according to festival custom” (Lk 2:41). And when they miss Jesus on the way home: “Thinking that he was in the caravan, [Joseph and Mary] journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances” (Lk 2:44). 

There’s a lot of information packed into that, and even more is implied, including the fact that the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover was the practical equivalent of a vacation for the poor, pious Jews of that time and place. Among them was the Holy Family, along with those “kinsfolk and acquaintances” who were with them on this occasion and others like it.

Mixing good times, faith

Historian Henri Daniel-Rops describes the Passover pilgrimage in his book “Daily Life in the Time of Jesus” (Servant Books, 1981): 

Quote
“Every good Christian knows that vacations are an opportune time to stretch one’s body and to nourish the spirit in more ample spaces of prayer and meditation, to grow in one’s personal relationship with Christ, and to conform more and more to his teachings.” 
 

“All the roads that led to the holy gates were filled with almost uninterrupted strings of caravans which would meet, greet one another and go on in company. There was a continual singing, the sound of innumerable voices chanting the famous psalms of pilgrimage to the tune of popular songs … The Passover was a very cheerful feast.” 

This spontaneous knack for combining a good time with the living of their faith wasn’t confined to the Jews of Jesus’ day. You find it, for instance, in the Christian culture of the late Middle Ages, reflected in Chaucer’s classic “Canterbury Tales,” where pilgrims traveling to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury entertain one another by telling some of the best stories ever. 

Our crabbed, modern way of thinking makes it hard to imagine a deeply felt religious ritual that was also a lot of fun. That’s our loss. I have no doubt that for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem was, along with much else, a happy family outing — a vacation, in other words.

A human good

At first it may strike someone as odd to discuss recreation and vacations in what’s supposed to be a discussion of “worldly” virtues — virtues suited to life in the world. But hold on. Recreation and the spiritual life are, in reality, closely linked. 

To put the matter technically, it might be said that the central meaning of a vacation or other recreational activity, rightly understood, is participation in the fundamental human good (or purpose) of play. And participating in human goods is the heart of mortality and the key to human fulfillment. Recreation’s special significance is suggested in the title of a well-known book by philosopher Josef Pieper — “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (Ignatius, $14.95). 

Pieper writes that the “soul” of leisure — recreation, that is — is “celebration.” And all celebration worthy of the name is essentially religious: “There is no feast that does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a feast by virtue of its origins in worship. … A feast ‘without gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown.” 

Yet for well over two centuries, since the time of the French Revolution, the ideological proponents of secularism have labored to replace religious feasts and festivals with civic celebrations drained of religious content. That effort has achieved considerable success in the case of something like the Fourth of July and Halloween, and lately even Christmas has been targeted for secularization. 

But even when it succeeds, the secularization of our recreation tends to be a self-defeating enterprise. For as Pieper pointed out, “the vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom.”

A matter of vocation

And that helps explain the way many people today approach recreation in general and vacations in particular. 

On the whole — and leaving aside amusements that are plainly immoral — I’d say there are two basic ways of recreating badly. 

The first way is destructive busyness. One common version is taking work with you during what should be a time of rest. I’ve had the experience — probably you have, too — of overhearing people at some vacation spot talking business on their cell phones, in great detail and at inordinate length, with someone in an office back home. “Call me later,” those conversations often end, “tell me if that flies, and then I’ll take it from there.” Some rest! 

Another kind of busyness involves overscheduling a vacation, running yourself ragged, trying to take in all the sights, do everything — and all in the name of slowing down. I have no quarrel with people who enjoy long automobile trips. But it’s disturbing to encounter some of these poor souls at a rest stop, frazzled and exhausted and checking their watches to see if it’s time to hit the road. 

The second kind of bad recreation is marked by deadly boredom. Pieper said idleness gives rise to “that deep-seated lack of calm which makes leisure impossible … since it might be described as the utter absence of leisure.” Here, too, it’s a sorry sight to see people on vacation who are suffering from terminal boredom and have taken to boozing and/or quarreling just to pass the time. 

Face it then — even though contemporary ideas conditioned by secularization find it hard to grasp, in order really to enjoy themselves people need to integrate recreation with the spiritual life. The residue of Manichaean-Jansenism inside us all — that tendency to place what’s enjoyable and what’s good in separate boxes and keep them there — complicates that.  

Yet, contrary to this deeply un-Christian way of thinking, the question of recreation — when and where and how — is at bottom a matter of vocation. 

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to someone who understands that all of life, without exception, lies within the scope of personal vocation, and everything one chooses to do, including even small everyday things, should be chosen in light of one’s understanding of God’s will for one’s life, here and now.  

“For in truth,” said the great Blessed John Henry Newman, “we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. … His call is a thing which takes place now.” It goes without saying that our listening for God’s call should also take place all day, every day. 

“Even when the matter involved is as mundane as where to go on vacation?” you may ask. Yes, even then.

Scheduling God time

That calling is easy to see if you’re a father or mother planning the family vacation. Here your vocation to your family — not just any family, but your own particular one, with these particular persons as its members — comes directly into play. The last family member whose preferences should be consulted is yourself (although, paradoxically, forgetting about your preferences is what will make you happiest in the end). 

There’s no one “right” answer to planning a vacation. The vacation that’s right for your family will be the one that best suits its particular needs and interests. Negotiating skills may be required: If some of the kids want the mountains and some want the beach, maybe you can do the mountains this year and the beach next year. Proceeding like that is living your vocation. 

Be sure, too, to include God in the schedule. My family has gone for years to a family-oriented beach town where, weekday after summer weekday, 8:30 a.m. Mass at the local Catholic church draws at least 200 people. It’s a beautiful sight and a daily testimony that many people do indeed invite God to join them on their vacations. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph certainly did that during those cheerful Passover pilgrimages long ago.  

Today the rest of us should also make our vacations and times of recreation happy interludes of prayerful play. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.