Summer is a time of long days, short nights, hot weather, and (around here anyway) cloudless blue skies by day with breathtaking starry panoramas by night. For many, it is a time of relaxation and leisure activities, of taking care of all the stuff you couldn’t do in the winter, and also: vacations.
“What did you do on your summer vacation?” This is a common essay theme for returning school children. But let us ask: what is a vacation? It is literally a time to be empty (from the Latin vacare), and by extension to be free and unencumbered. “Vacant” and “vacuous” also have the same root, so one must be careful that one’s vacation is not completely devoid of creative or fruitful activity, but rather that it is worthy in some way of God’s blessing.
Images of severe asceticism and struggle notwithstanding, monks are on a perpetual vacation, that is, a vacation with God. In fact, our struggle, our asceticism—the whole work of repentance and conversion—is precisely that which creates within our hearts and souls the “empty place” that God desires to fill as only He can. We may not often think of our spiritual life as a vacation in the usual sense of harmless fun or frivolous activities (and we shouldn’t think of it that way), but it would be good to develop the sense of “becoming empty” in order to receive the presence of the Lord.
So how do we go on a vacation with God? Much of the work of prayer is directed towards the opening of the heart to the presence of God, but simply to say prayers is, for many, no vacation! Well, then, why don’t we start our vacation with God by enjoying a prayerful feast of the senses, discovering the presence of the Lord all around us, even as we seek to discover that same presence within us?
Try taking a walk sometime, in the woods or the mountains, near the ocean or a lake or river. You don’t have to “say prayers” while you’re walking, but you can “become prayer” by being open to all the gifts of nature around you, and the gifts of grace within you. Just listen to all the sounds, look at the beauty around you, feel the breeze, smell the fragrances. Don’t label, analyze, or attempt to interpret anything. Try to perceive everything as directly and freshly as possible, like a child who does not know how to label things but can only be enthralled by them. Simply be in the midst of the creation of God, breathe it in and give thanks. For the time being “lay aside all earthly cares,” as our Liturgy invites. Be still, listen to your own heartbeat, and marvel at the miracle of your own being, sustained each moment by the love of God.
We tend to “know” too much and thus sacrifice the immediacy of experience. We know what a flower is, and a tree, and a bird, and a stream. So we walk by them, unconsciously name them, and get on with whatever business is currently preoccupying our minds. But do we really see things, know them as they are? What we’re often missing, as Abraham Heschel so cogently and beautifully points out, is the ability to truly know and experience reality because we have lost the sense of wonder, of “radical amazement” in the face of the grandeur of all that is, amazed even that there is anything at all! We have become jaded, insensitive, indifferent.
What has happened is that we have not attained to the “awareness of the ineffable,” of the hidden mystery of all things created by God, so we look no further than mere appearances. We can have names for things, we can discover what material elements constitute them, but are we not interested in what they mean, what they stand for and point to? This is where our little vacation with God becomes important for our spiritual life. We need to become aware that the beauty of creation is a shimmer of the glory of God, that his voice is in the wind, that the universe is full of angels. This will not happen by living only on the superficial level of the ephemeral affairs of the day’s business. We need to take the time to listen, to withdraw a while from our routine and mind-numbing activities, to empty out all that crowds our inner life and obscures the sense of God’s presence. If only we had a delete button, as computers do, to simply push and empty all the trash in the folders of our minds!
But it takes more effort and discipline than that. We have to make a conscious choice to open up our awareness to that which is unseen, ineffable, and which calls forth from us the sense of awe and wonder without which our lives become shallow and sterile. Believe that there is more than meets the eye or any of the senses. But do start with the senses. Then let the creation speak of its Maker, and let the Maker speak through what He has made. Little by little, your “vacation” will prove fruitful, as you become a creator as well—a creator of an inner sanctuary in which you receive and reverence the mystery of the living God.
Take the time; try to develop the awareness. It will be found by those who sincerely seek. Then you will realize that you don’t need to wait until summer to have your vacation. You can go on vacation with God every time the sense of wonder draws your heart to that quiet inner place where you perceive things as they really are, where you can hear the gentle yet ceaseless praise of everything that lives and breathes, and where emptiness makes way for the fullness of Love.