Light in August

Aug. 1 Editorial: Pope Benedict Speaks of a Higher Purpose for Down Time

(photo: REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia )

It’s the height of vacation season, and in spite of continuing economic difficulties and joblessness, many people are fortunate enough to get away for a few days. Some must be content with “staycations.” Others are on a kind of permanent vacation: Having lost a job, they’re unable to find another.

Whatever our circumstances, it’s worth contemplating Pope Benedict XVI’s recent reflection on using “down time” for a higher purpose.

Time off and time away, said the Pope on his own vacation in Castel Gandolfo, “is a favorable moment to give first place to what is effectively the most important thing in life, that is to say, listening to the Word of God.”

The Gospel reading for that day gave the Pope a providential chance to reflect on the importance of leisure and contemplation. It was that famous scene from Luke 10, when frazzled Martha castigates Mary for not helping out with the preparations and serving when the Lord came to visit the home of Lazarus.

Benedict comments: “This Gospel passage is very important at vacation time because it reminds us that the human person must work and must be about domestic and professional concerns, but above all he has need of God, who is the interior light of love and truth. Without love, even the most important activities lose value and do not bring joy. Everything we do is reduced to sterile and disordered activism if we lose sight of its deeper meaning. And who gives us love and truth if not Jesus Christ?

“So let us learn,” the Pope continued, “to help each other, to work together, but even before that to choose together the better part, which is and will always be our greater good.”

We live in a busy world. Like Martha, we bustle about with so many chores so much that we sometimes wonder what we’re trying to accomplish, what we’re working so hard for. Work, as the Holy Father points out, is important, but it is not so important that it must crowd out all the quiet time in our lives, when we can hear God much more clearly.

We must create those quiet times. “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you,” the Lord tells us.

On vacation, often, the quiet times are easier to find: an evening walk along a beach; finding an untraveled path in one of our national parks; or, for those on “staycation,” sitting alone in the backyard in the early morning, before the busy-ness and noisiness of the day takes over.

Mother Teresa was interviewed by Dan Rather once in the 1980s. “What do you say to God when you pray?” he asked. Her answer was simply, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.”

“Well, what does Jesus say to you?” he prodded. And Mother Teresa answered, “Oh, he doesn’t say anything, either. He just listens.”

If we’re willing to slow down, quiet our inner beings and listen to God through the natural environment we find ourselves in, we can have an experience beautiful enough to make us want to find that connection somewhere in the busy lives we return to when vacation ends. Eventually, with practice, we can find that “inner room” to which the Lord advises us to go when we pray even in the midst of the world’s busy-ness.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” we read in Psalm 46. It’s no surprise that the psalmist’s invitation to quiet contemplation is rendered by vacatio in the Latin Vulgate.

But the danger is that today’s technology can make even our vacations “noisy” affairs. Not long ago, folks would send postcards from vacation spots. Since we had to go to a store to hunt down a card and then go to the post office to mail it, postcards often would reach family or friends after the sender got back from his trip.

Nowadays, one is just as likely to get “e-postcards” from vacationers — be it an email, a text message or an updated Facebook status. Some people try to tweet every step of the way.

With so many mobile devices in our lives and hotels offering free wi-fi, the temptation to “stay connected” is ever-present. In some people’s cases, it’s difficult to leave work behind when the boss can always reach you on your Blackberry. For others, having more time means wasting more time online.

Giving in to the enchantment of mobile devices, worldwide connectivity and the constant chatter of 24-hour TV news can do a serious disservice to our spiritual lives, for there’s another connection we have to make if we want to experience a more complete vacation — and a more complete life.

It’s up to us to look after that quiet inner core where God’s word can find a welcome place. It’s up to us to find the time and the place for that Word.

Vacation time gives us a good opportunity to begin the practice. It’s far easier to make time to start each day with Mass — or at least to read part of the Gospel — and spend a half hour in stillness and quiet conversation with our Lord.

We then will become like Mary, seated at the feet of the Lord, gazing upon his face, enjoying “the better part.”