Should I relax my “Rule of Life” during holidays? Part I of II

 Dear Father John, Is it right to relax one’s Rule during a holiday period (or a day off)? If so, what should we hang on to and what should we ‘shelve’? What about a priest with a fairly demanding Rule of Life? As you will have guessed, I am a priest and am unsure about my own practice. I also find that this question comes up among other clergy and among committed and faithful lay folk (especially those married to partners who may not practice the faith in quite the same way).

This is not only a great question, but an important question. We live in an almost completely secularized popular culture in which the highest good (as habitually presented by advertising and entertainment) is enjoyment. And so, living for the weekends, for vacation, for retirement – this is constantly offered to us as the proper priority in life. Even though, as active Catholics, our friendship with Christ has given us a different set of priorities, the bombardment of secular images and messages that we navigate through each day has its effect. By reflecting briefly on a truly Christian view of vacation, we can, I hope, extirpate some well-disguised mental parasites that tend to disturb our interior peace.

As usual, the best place to start is at the end – in all things look to the end, as the ancient philosophers used to say. What is the goal, the purpose of a rule of life (on our posts, we sometimes refer to a rule of life as a “program of life” or a “program for reform of life”)? What is the purpose of vacation? Answering those questions will pave the way to an answer to your more specific question about whether/how to adjust one’s rule of life during vacation.

The Purpose of a Rule of Life

A rule of life usually contains a few essential elements: daily, weekly, monthly and annual prayer commitments; a list of our strongest selfish tendencies and some points of work to foster growth in the contrary virtues; some kind of life-mission or vision statement, summing up in our own words the calling and mission we have received from God; some kind of personal schedule or schedule parameters that will enable a healthy pursuit of that life-mission.

A rule of life should be a living document – constantly referred to, reviewed, adjusted, and reworked through spiritual direction, retreats, and personal prayer and reflection. In this way, a rule of life becomes a powerful tool to help us steadily grow in our friendship with Christ and effectively put our God-given talents at the service of his Kingdom. Without a rule of life of some kind, we easily fall prey to moodiness, inconstancy, and dissipation in our pursuit of holiness and spiritual fruitfulness. In short, a rule of life helps us know and stay focused on following God’s will in our lives – the only path to lasting happiness and spiritual maturity.

The Purpose of Vacation

What is the purpose of vacation? A good analogy comes from farming. Before planting a new crop, a farmer plows and fertilizes his field. He has to turn over the earth, expose it to the air, break up the hard surface, turn over the roots and stalks left over from the last harvest, and refresh the soil under the surface by exposing it to the air, sun, and rain. Then he is ready to plant a new crop.

Vacation does something similar for our souls. Daily life in this fallen world is demanding, exhausting. We pour energy – mental, psychological, spiritual, and emotional energy – into work, the duties of our state in life, and relationships. Our activity drains the nutrients from the soil of our human nature, drying it out. Vacation is met to refresh that soil, to reinvigorate it, to restore balance to our physical and psychological organism. Thus restored, we can return to the demands of our life-mission with renewed energy and determination. An annual vacation is to each year what a day off is to each week. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “I hope everyone, especially those in greatest need, will be able to take a bit of vacation to restore their physical and spiritual energy and recover a healthy contact with nature” (Angelus, July 8, 2007).

The Upshot

In short, we go on vacation from what we do, not from who we are.

Vacation is meant to provide necessary rest from and rejuvenation for the normal, meaningful, but draining activities of daily life; it is not meant to separate us from God or be pause on our journey towards deeper communion with him. Vacation must never be an excuse to pray less, to skip out on the sacraments, to indulge in irresponsibility, to sin, or to flirt with occasions of sin. In that sense, a rule of life retains full validity during periods of vacation. And remember that your companions and circumstances will not be perfect even while you are on vacation; you will still need to exercise self-sacrifice, patience, and other virtues (especially those you most need to develop). If you expect and accept this, it won’t spoil your rest. After all, as our Lord reminded us, “there is more joy in giving than receiving” (Acts 20:35).

On the other hand, a vacation will yield little rest and rejuvenation if it fails to include a notable change from the daily grind – the soil has to be plowed to be refreshed. And this change can certainly be reflected in some of the more external aspects even of our spiritual lives. Here are some examples that may help illustrate the point. They can apply to weekly days off as well as annual vacation periods.

In our next post on this topic, we will talk about how to put some of these ideas into practice.

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