The Summer Solstice is past, school is out and graduation parties are subsiding. Summer is officially here! Time for vacations, cookouts, travel, and some kind of break in the normal routine. Even if our personal lives have long been disconnected from the pattern of the school year, there is something about summer that evokes the feeling of being free. Perhaps at some level, we remember what is was like to be kids eagerly counting down the days until school lets out, our calendar having one box excitedly proclaiming, “Last Day of School” followed by multiple exclamation points. Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out” is a timeless anthem to those days.
As we get older it gets harder to plan a summer that keeps that feeling of freedom and leisure alive. In our climate controlled workplaces and cars, we are insulated from the heat that reminds us we are in a different kind time. Our indoor lives disconnect us from the sky staying bright so late into the evening. Many families have been unable to enjoy regular meals altogether, so the extra work of firing up the grill and setting up the outdoor table seems too, well, extra, to do on a regular day, just for the heck of it.
In the US we have turned into one of the most driven and productive work forces in the world. At the same time, we have the least generous vacation allowances in the developed world. Even at that rate, Americans tend to take only about half of the vacation time due to them, essentially giving their employers thousands of dollars of free labor. According to a recent survey, the biggest reason is fear — fear of getting behind in their work, fear that nobody else can do their work while away, fear of being disconnected, fear of not meeting their performance goals, even fear of being fired as more and more workers are “at-will” employees.
What a shame that so many of us are unable simply to kick back and relax! And we clergy and religious are not immune to this, in spite of all our encouragement to others that they make space for leisure, holy or otherwise. We, too, can become susceptible to the vain notion that everything depends on us — which, if it were true, would be a sign that we are not doing our ministry well! It is easy to forget that God also rested. Leisure is part of the created order!
Years ago I had a chance to take a ten-day vacation on the beach across the street from the chapel of a Franciscan mission overseas. Promising to be a “low maintenance” guest among the local friars, I committed to spending each day, all day, on the sandy beach doing beach-things. Each day I planned some kind of beach activity — a couple books to read, a walk to one end of the beach four miles in one direction, another walk three miles in the other direction, snorkeling, napping. On the last full day, as I approached the beach and wondered what to do on my last day, it dawned on me that I really didn’t want to do anything at all. Anything. At. All.
What a strange feeling, spending a whole day not doing anything except sitting and watching the day just pass by. It hit me then — THIS is what it must feel like to be relaxed! It had been so long since I felt that way, I truly didn’t even recognize the feeling for a while. What a gift simply to watch the sun arc across the sky toward its setting, locals strolling by whole hawking fresh fruit, souvenirs, and less licit adventures, the only decision being the right time to switch from ice water to rum drinks.
Years ago I used to take the parish youth group for summer retreat on a river where the swimming and canoeing were great, the fishing less so. Still, we fished. During my own childhood fishing was not part of our summers, so I came upon the sport later in life. I’m still not really good at it, though I very much enjoy being on the river. An older friar once observed, “He who can fish, can pray.” Only later did I discover what he meant. When you fish, you have to trust that there really are fish down there, even if you can’t see them. When you pray, you have to believe there truly is a God to hear you, even if you do not see him. When you fish, you think you are tricking the fish into taking your bait, even though the fish will do what it wants and when it wants. In prayer, we think we are persuading God to change his mind about something, even though God will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. While fishing, sometimes the point is not so much about catching anything but just to be out fishing. In prayer, sometimes the point of praying is just to be praying.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.
So this summer, whatever it takes, give God a chance to break through the stress and busyness of your routine. Take your vacation, get away, relax, spend time doing nothing, even if just for a couple of days. Try to recall the simple childlike freedom of summer. Don’t let the cares of your workplace intrude — don’t EVEN check your email! Go someplace where there is no cell phone service. And if possible, fish.