Is there a Catholic approach to summer vacation? Can a vacation be sanctified? If so, what does that mean, and what would it imply for the rest of the year?
Let’s say that this topic should go to the top of anyone’s list, as of the highest importance, not least because of its connection with Sunday. The word “vacation” is nowhere to be found in the Catechism, yet “rest” is frequently mentioned, always in connection with the Lord’s Day: “The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2184)
Indeed, the Catechism reminds us that the First Precept of the Church is “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.” If we are having difficulties with Mass attendance, either imposed or of our own making, we are likely to have difficulties too with a Christian’s “rest,” which is not something negative but a positive focus on the goods of family, culture, association, and religion. Should we expect that someone who does not live well the weekly day of rest, would do so with his yearly time of rest?
Perhaps COVID-19 has made things clearer for us. When Mass attendance is impossible, we may want other ways of observing the Lord’s Day to assume due importance; and yet we can see and sense that they don’t flourish on their own – that they get their meaning precisely as a fruit and blessing of divine worship.
Vacation means a time made empty (vacant). From what? From claims on our time related to procuring the necessities of life, which, in a simpler age, meant food, clothing, and shelter. In short, a vacation is leisure. Like time for prayer, leisure is made, not found. The greater our necessities, or felt necessities, the harder it is to make time for them, but also the more important it is to do so.
Joseph Pieper has been praised for reviving, as a deep philosophical topic, the question of leisure. He revived it, because Aristotle’s ethics was already, in the end, about how to use leisure. For the ancients, it was a test of a man’s character: how would he choose to use “free” time (really, his freedom) if he had it? Suppose he found himself on the Isles of the Blest (so they put it), what would he do? Or would he be unfit for such a blessing?
“If I were a rich man,” sings Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he’d finally have leisure, and spend his time disputing questions of the Law (or so he says). This is an admirable Jewish conception. A Christian might rather ask: if I were in heaven, what would I do? – since one might liken heaven to the fullest realization of what a Christian should choose in leisure. Requiescat in pace: may he enjoy, in the way that God wants, his eternal vacation.
It follows that vacation should be, insofar as we are able, an anticipation of and participation in heaven. Many things then follow from this. For instance, those who think that vacation is a time when one needn’t bother about Mass or Confession have got it exactly wrong. A vacation, rather, is when a family has freedom to go to the sacraments and to pray together easily. Importantly, it is a time when children can easily see their parents praying.
We have bad habits of enjoying necessities and fleeing from leisure. So it is with prayer, and so too with “school,” derived curiously from the Greek word for leisure (scholē) – on the grounds that it was good for young people to have time free from farm work and manufacture, so that they could devote themselves to knowledge, culture and religion.
When there is no servile work waiting in the wings, school appears onerous, no longer a mark of freedom, and a privilege. The truth is that both are highly important, but only in the proper place, and leisure rightly lived puts everything else in its proper place.
Mere rest is like sleep, an absence of exertion, which allows for the recovery of our faculties for action.
Relaxation is opposite to tension: periods of alternating extreme tension and complete relaxation are invaluable for growth, and creativity.
Recreation is a new and repeated creation, not an absence of activity, but activities of a different type, which build up new faculties for action.
Rejuvenation is becoming young again, typically by doing what we did when young, in order to regain optimism and see things new.
These are all divine things, and a Christian’s vacation should include all of them. (Note that “entertainment” is not on the list: it gets included only when it is attached to one of the others.)
Already one can see that every vacation must be planned, even two weeks of “free time” at the beach, so as not to create more false necessities, but also not to squander time, to make the time as fruitful as possible. Husband and wife should plan the vacation together, and families should have “councils,” so that everyone understands the plan and cooperates together for a common good. Minimally, one needs to draw up lists and follow some kind of daily schedule: there must be a discipline, yet not anything burdensome.
No Christian vacation is complete without the Cross, that seasoning of sanctification. Rarely will the Cross be something like an encounter with “The Misfit” (in that vacation described by Flannery O’Connor) – although sometimes it is. More typically one encounters it in the stomach flu, a car breakdown, a theft, or maybe just a bad value for one’s money.
When God presents us with an unexpected Cross, parents can set an example by showing a specifically Christian resourcefulness, through embracing the Cross with good humor and waiting to see, confidently, what graces will flow from it.
*Image: Blaise, Valerie, and Mark Pakaluk at Norcross Pond, White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire, 2020 [Photo by the author]