Recently, standing behind a mom in line at Disney, I heard her reflect to a friend, “I don’t know how my kids’ teacher puts up with them all day.”
People often feel ambivalent about their family vacations. We can’t wait to go on them, but somewhere in the middle, we often wonder when it will all be over. It might seem odd to think of family vacations as an opportunity for our families to draw closer to God, but thanks to the sacrament of marriage, everything about marriage and family life brings is an opportunity to encounter God—if we know where to look.
God often reveals himself through the experience of wonder, and family vacations present natural opportunities to experience that gift. The psychiatrist, Neel Burton, defines wonder as a spontaneous experience characterized by feelings of “surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy.” He notes that wonder is “a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, by a marvel.”
The 18th Century Scottish Philosopher, Adam Smith, observed that wonder begins as rapturous, bodily experience that quickly escalates into something spiritual as it creates, “that suspension of the breath, that swelling of the heart.”
Religious people often experience wonder in prayer and worship as we encounter God breaking through the noise of daily life and drawing us up into his arms. But even secular experiences of wonder, like staring into the Grand Canyon, being sprayed by the mist of Niagara Falls, or even something as simple as catching fireflies on a hot summer night, are doorways to an encounter with God. Through all of these things, and many other experiences like them, Our Father reaches out through his creation. The movement of his spirit inspires a sense of quiet awe that makes us want to reach back in love and thanksgiving.
Children are especially adept at wonder, and even the smallest child can encounter God in those moments when, as Pope Francis put it, we are simply “wasting time” with our kids; holding them in our arms, playing tag, singing together, telling stories, and just being quiet together. In every experience of wonder, if we know how to listen, we can hear the voice of God saying, “I love you. Draw closer to me.”
As with everything in life, our sense of wonder is crushed when we become so focused on the destination that we fail to enjoy the journey; when we get so focused on “getting on the darn ride already” that we forget to just be playful and silly together while waiting in line. But it’s wonder that makes family vacations both restful and memorable. It can be helpful to remind ourselves to not just approach family vacation as another job that must be done with military precision, with deadlines, objectives, and goals that must be met or else. On vacation, the chaos can be part of the fun, if we just remember to breathe and let it be.
When we bring God on our family vacation, he can help us remember to pause and experience the wonder that allows vacations to do what they are meant to; connect us to each other and to God. When the tension rises as we try to stuff our family’s carry-on bags into the overhead compartment, a little prayer, “Lord, give me your peace. Help me remember to be gentle with my kids. And let us really grow closer together on this trip.” can remind us to take a breath and be grateful.
Taking time for mass is another great way to bring God on family holiday. In fact, the word “holiday” is a contraction of “holy day.” For the secular person, the natural impulse is to assume that every day is another work day. The impulse to prioritize time to reflect and relax is a religious one. Going to mass on vacation gives you a chance to pause and thank God for the blessings and love he has brought into your life.
Take little moments to pray as a family throughout the trip. Before your pull out of the driveway, ask God, out loud, for a safe and blessed journey. Before beginning each day’s activities, take a moment to thank God for another day together, and ask him to help you use this day to draw closer to him and each other. Say grace at meals. Even at restaurants. It literally takes 8 seconds to meaningfully pause and thank God for providing each meal, and pray for those who are going without. But it’s 8 seconds that enables you to recognize your family meal is actually a gift and not just an opportunity to shove food in your meal hole.
Most of us will have about 18 summer vacations with our kids. Making them count doesn’t mean spending even more money to experience even more chaos and drama. It means asking God to allow you to experience the wonder that comes from marveling at the world he created and the love he has given you and your children to share.