Be Still

Gentle reader, I am in an undisclosed location, not in the way that Washington bigwigs get whisked away, we’re told, for some national security reason or other. And I haven’t entered the witness protection program – at least not yet, though it may come to that for Christians. Much to my surprise, and I think for the first time since the elder Bush was president, I am actually taking a vacation.

I travel a lot in my everyday labors, so for me to be away from home for any reason is a bit too much like work. If I am going to take a few days off – and I almost never can – I’d normally rather be at home. This year my wife convinced me that we really needed some time doing basically nothing, preferably far away from Washington in a spectacular natural setting. She was right, as usual, for several reasons. So I write to you from Southern Utah, where the sun has not entirely come up this morning, but the bare mountains are already showing more colors to God’s creation than I think have seen in my entire previous life.

This is the only kind of vacation I care to take. I know lots of people who plan vacations where they “do” things, and I am impressed with the kinds of things human beings have thought up to do. But I am already plenty busy during the rest of the year and prefer the kind of leisure in which you can “loaf and invite the soul,” as Walt Whitman advised.

The great Catholic authority on leisure, of course, is Joseph Pieper, whose book Leisure, the Basis of Culture you should read as soon as possible, even if you’ve read it several times already, as I have. He starts with the line in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God,” and it only gets better from there.

Pieper wrote this slim little masterpiece in the aftermath of World War II, when he felt that he had to remind the people busily reconstructing Europe that human life is something more than practical arrangements. Pieper is dead set, of course, against the crazy idea that you should rest so that you can return to work with a vengeance. But he does not believe it’s enough even to allow that we need to have extra time to develop all those activities people usually think of as “culture,” that is to say pleasing diversions in the European fashion which are supposed to be the point of life. He means that we can’t really be fully human unless we take time, in our daily lives or in special periods set aside, to find some way to be in touch with something timeless.

For Pieper, play can be timeless, as it is for children, but there are other sides to leisure, too. It has only happened to me rarely, but I’ve noticed that once in a great while, when I am traveling somewhere and am out of a regular routine between duties, or when I’m on a retreat where the press of practical life is lifted for a while, I – just barely – glimpse a different kind of time as somehow both passing and present. Actually, the experience reminds me of some of those long days you remember from childhood that seemed to last forever, as if you were in some eternal story, familiar yet exotic, even though you would be hard pressed to explain how.

Almost every adult I know talks about how fast time seems to go. And it does for busy adults, I think, because practical concerns compress the world in some way distantly akin to the way that Einstein says relative velocity alters time and space. It’s not only that we have many things to do in the everyday world; those pressing matters eat up the different sense of time and space – and perhaps the world’s openness to transcendence – that otherwise we might have.

A spell in an undisclosed location happily also produces a real and simple proximity to people and things. Human beings have long had a tendency to drift away in imagination from their surroundings, even before cell phones, Internet, and email called for a new kind of E-asceticism. But in the last few years, I’ve noticed that not only do I and other people abstract ourselves a lot from immediate surroundings to keep up with work. You’re also constantly multi-tasking, which is to say you are in several cyberspaces at once, divided in heart and mind, as if otherwise you might miss something and your life would be the poorer.

I’ve left all that aside for several days and feel for the moment like a blessedly different being. I don’t think it’s a Romantic fantasy that the Native Americans in this area lived a different sense of time and space. There are petroglyphs, picture writing on rocks, here that really capture their sense of human beings in a setting that’s vast and varied, and yet simple. The Mormons regard Indians as the lost tribes of Israel – a belief hard to justify in historical terms – but there’s something about the water and wind carved landscape here that almost transports you to the stark settings in the Scriptures.

So, even though I’m in Utah’s Zion, a place where the Mormon settlers used to refer to Christians as Gentiles, I’m feeling more at home than I have in years. Check your calendar. You have time to pencil in a few days of authentic leisure yourself before the summer ends, don’t you?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.