Encountering God when on holiday
by Joseph Ratzinger
In the modern era, our relationship to work and to the mundane tasks of making a living have been essentially modified.
In ancient times, the full liberation from earthly concerns in order to devote oneself to ‘leisure in the pursuit of truth’ was presented as the ideal condition in life, and occupying oneself with earthly matters appeared as a weight and a deviation from the essential.
In contrast, man today thinks of service to the world with a kind of religious fervor. He does not care at all to escape from the world, and he eschews idleness even more. What he considers to be positive about human possibilities is that man can change the face of the earth in order to realize its full potential and improve its livability.
But what makes the earth more habitable? The moment all the conveniences resulting from technology reach the peak of their development, then there is nostalgia for the simplicity of old. The world which man has built up with his own hands and which now surrounds him everywhere becomes a prison in which he starts to cry for freedom and invokes whatever is Totally Other!
We realize, of course, that free time does not necessarily mean peace and quiet; and that peace and quiet have to be ‘learned anew’ all the time, if work is to have any sense.
We also realize that whoever wants to ‘take the world’ completely for himself ends up destroying the world itself and his own vital life space. This is no longer considered a Cassandra-like prophecy by incurable romantics who are enemies of technology, but it has begun to be seen as a realistic evaluation by which technology itself judges itself.
When the apostles came back from the first mission to which Jesus had sent them, they were all in the grip of what they had experienced and achieved. They could not tire of endlessly recounting their own successes, and in fact, they kindled such enthusiasm around them that they ended up having no time even to eat, for all the people who came and went without interruption. Perhaps they expected to be praised for their zeal, but instead, Jesus invites them to come with him to a lonely place where they can be alone and where they can rest.I think it is good to see, once and for all, in an episode like this, the humanity of Jesus, who was not always offering words of extraordinary significance, nor trying to deal uninterruptedly with everything and everyone that demanded something of him.
In fact I like to imagine what Jesus’s expression must have been when he invited his apostles to take a break. Jesus makes them come down to earth by telling them “All right now, unwind, relax!” One can sense the discreet sense of humor and the friendly irony with which he gets them to put their feet on the ground!
And it is this humanity of Jesus that makes visible what is divine in him, which makes him manifest to us as God. Frenzy of any kind – even if it is ‘religious’ zeal and frenzy – is totally alien to the man of the New Testament.
Think about it: Every time that we believe we are absolutely indispensable, every time we think that the world and the Church depend on our tireless activity, we over-value ourselves.
It is therefore an act of correct humility and of creature honesty to know when to stop, to recognize our limitations, to take some free time to breathe freely and rest, because these, too, are needed by the creature called man.
It is not that I wish to sing the praises of laziness, but I do wish to suggest a certain change in the table of virtues as it has evolved in the Western world, for which only action counts as a legitimate and conceivable activity – whereas meditation, wonder, self-communion and silence are seen to be indefensible and worthless, or at the very least, ‘activities’ that need to be justified.
During some archaeological excavations for the remains of Roman settlements in north Africa, they discovered in the ancient market square of Fimgad, in Algeria, an inscription from the second or third century which read: “To hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh – that is living!”
I think of that inscription every year when I see the river of vacationing people headed for the south of Europe in pursuit of ‘living’. When, in the far future, archaeologists will find the advertisements for travel and vacation from our day, they will discover we had an analogous representation of ‘living’.
Obviously, most people consider that spending the whole year working in an office, a factory or other kind of workplace is a form of ‘not living’. And so we all look forward to the holidays when we feel we are finally free to ‘live’ as we wish. To swim, to play, to laugh, to joke – that’s the life!
This expectation of relaxation, of freedom, of escaping the constrictions of everyday routine is quintessentially human. And indeed, in the face of the demanding productive rhythm of the world of technology, such breaks for rest are simply necessary.
But even granting all that, we must admit that even in a condition of maximum freedom, of maximum availability of free time, our problems do not disappear. Man realizes suddenly that he has lost his capacity to ‘live’ – that swimming and playing, laughing and joking, are fun, but that’s not really ‘living’.
And so the question of how to use free time and vacations has begun to be an object of serious and specific scientific investigation. I am reminded that Thomas Aquinas wrote an entire treatise on the means to fight sadness. And it is a testimony to his sense of reality that he too lists swimming, sleeping and amusements as among such measures!
But he also points out that among the ways to fight sadness one must include being together with friends, which relieves the isolation that is often at the root of our discontents. Free time should above all be a time when one can be available and accessible for relating to others.
Finally, for Thomas, the antidotes to sadness must include looking for Truth, and that means looking for God – through contemplation of the truth, from which man draws authentic living.
If we exclude this from our plans for our holidays, then even our free time can only be false and deceiving. And we ourselves, all looking forward to recovering some of the ‘living’ we miss out during the rest of the year, will not fare any better.
Seeking God is the most stimulating walk in the mountains and the most enlivening swim one can imagine. To swim, to play, to sleep – of course, they are re all ingredients of a vacation.
But like Thomas Aquinas, when we plan our holidays, we should also consider the possibility of an encounter with God, to which we are invited by all our beautiful churches and all the natural beauties of God’s creation.