Recently, I was asked if I was taking a summer vacation. I was also asked if I had plans for a “staycation.” Although we have taken many family road trips over the years, and enjoyed visiting local museums, state parks, beaches, and attractions near our home, this summer, my plans seem to be taking a new shape. With my three oldest children married, our youngest children soon to be leaving the nest, and the blessing of a granddaughter now in our family, I have been contemplating summer plans, and landed on some unexpected ideas.
A few years ago, I read Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. In reflecting upon some of his comments, it occurred to me that summer is an excellent time to consider “Benedict options”—intentional plans that take advantage of the change in routine that often comes with summer.
St. Benedict retreated from the chaos of the crumbled Western Roman empire into the safety and quiet of the cave. I began to contemplate “Benedictine retreats” that I could take to help me better understand God’s will for me at this new season in life. I began to wonder: What should these “Benedictine options” look like for me?
Before he became Pope St. John Paul II, Cardinal Wojtyła defined “retreat” as our setting out toward God, our desire to meet Him. Wojtyła said that a retreat is a “movement toward God springing from the integration of our being with our activity.” The idea of withdrawing into a “Benedictine cavern” is not intended as an escape from reality. Rather, it is an intentional movement toward God. This distinction gave me pause. I wondered, “What can I do this summer to intentionally draw closer to God and to become a better person, more fully human, more holy?”
Through prayer and spiritual reading, God placed it upon my heart to withdraw into three specific realms. Although these “Benedict options” may seem underwhelming (especially compared to an exciting family vacation), I believe that intentionally “retreating” into them will bear fruit. The Benedictine “caverns” of retreat into which He is calling me include the family, the Sabbath, and leisure. Withdrawing into these realms of restoration and reformation appear to be essential as I seek to discern God’s will during this new season of life.
Withdrawing into the Family
In his book The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton called the family the cell that makes up the state, round which gather the sanctities, with decency serving as the curtain of the family tent, and honor as the family flag. The Church, too, acknowledges the singular importance of the family, referring to it as the revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, the domestic church, and a community of faith, hope, and charity (CCC 2204).
In theory, acknowledging the important role of the family is one thing. Living it is another. What does this Benedict option look like? How do we “retreat” into the family? I believe this option looks much like John Senior’s description from his book The Restoration of Christian Culture:
Long-range change is slow and for all practical purposes impossible; but the decision to change oneself is unpremeditated and instantaneous, a systole of the heart. And even if a fraction of the next generation should live in that trembling hope, then when the great change comes, as it always does, like a thief in the night, by surprise, it will come because of them, far from the maddening crowd, far from the protests, bull horns, klieg lights, and cameras, in that quiet place at home by the fire which in the meantime, little as it is, is of immediate and lasting worth.
It is that image of the family—sitting around the hearth, sharing meals together, reading books aloud, playing board games, singing, laughing, crying, and loving one another—these are the memories that are most dear to me from raising our children. And, continuing to gather my young-adult children and their families around the hearth and home is a priority for me this summer. Intentionally spending time together as a family throughout the summer, is a “Benedict option” that, God willing, will build memories and strengthen relationships for years to come.
Sabbath rest? What’s that?
In addition to a Benedict option that includes the family, I have been reviewing my relationship with the Sabbath. In his book The Sabbath, Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel
noted a distinction between “good” and “holy.” He states that,
“to the Bible, the good is penultimate; it cannot exist without the holy. The good is the base, the holy is the summit. Things created in six days He considered good, the seventh day He made holy. … The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit. It gives us the opportunity to sanctify time, to raise the good to the level of the holy.”
What is the most holy way to honor the Sabbath? The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Mass the “source and summit” of our faith. However, as I reflected upon the Catechism’s words coupled with Heschel’s call to ascend to the holiness of the Sabbath, I had to admit that there are times when my attendance at Mass feels more like I am checking an item off from my to-do list, rather than prayerfully ascending to the summit.
Many weekends are jam-packed with activities in which Mass is just one item on a list of events to attend before rushing off to the next activity on the list. An ascent to the summit? A Sabbath rest? I had to admit that my reality did not match this beautiful possibility.
Arguably, to ascend to the summit requires preparation. In his book, Heschel states, “All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day.” What does this pilgrimage look like? How do we prepare to truly enter into the Sabbath and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? I believe it requires four things. First, we must want to. We must want to consider the Sabbath and the Sunday Celebration to be a priority. Next, we must pray each and every day. Third, reading spiritual literature can help strengthen our knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and love for the Sabbath and the Mass. Finally, we must take action. Old habits are hard to break. Changing how we prepare for Sundays, and discerning which activities we should engage in on Sundays takes intention, discipline, and practice. I will be giving it a try this summer.
Family, Sabbath, and Leisure
Finally, I plan to be intentional this summer about my leisure. Joseph Pieper states that a disintegration of the understanding and practice of “leisure” in the traditional sense will “have a clear historical consequence; namely, the totalitarian work state.” This statement caused me alarm.
Yet, what exactly, is leisure? In fact, it is not equivalent to “down time.” Leisure, like Wojtyła’s definition of retreat, is an intentional action. Leisure is not mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds or YouTube videos. Rather, true leisure is an intentional activity that, Pieper suggests, brings us to reflective and receptive contemplation and allows us to discern the ultimate reason of the living universe.
How do we practice leisure? Pieper offers three suggestions.
1. First, Pieper, like St. Benedict, recommends listening within silence.
2. Second, Pieper suggests fasting and abstinence from visual noise (including electronic screens).
3. Third, he encourages being active in artistic creation.
In addition, leisure can include creating art, reading great literature and poetry, listening to and creating beautiful music, dance, gardening, enjoying nature, walking, cooking, playing games as a family, lectio divina, and intentional conversations that build relationships. Rather than being a passive activity, leisure is an intentional activity that strengthens our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation; helping us to become more fully human.
St. Benedict’s retreat into the cave was not an act of passive escape, nor was he trying to revolutionize the fallen Roman world. Rather, it was an intentional effort to hear the voice of God amidst the noise, chaos, and moral corruption of the culture. This summer, rather than a vacation or staycation, I plan to follow St. Benedict’s example. By retreating into the family, the Sabbath, and leisure, I hope to draw closer to God while becoming more fully human. St. Benedict, pray for me.