Ah, summertime! Each of us looks forward to the time of year where we get a break from our daily work and school routine.
In the United States, we call it vacation. Other countries call it holiday. Irrelevant of the name, it brings images of leisure time, travel, friends, family, and sometimes adventure.
Whether it is a trip to the shore, a cabin in the mountains, a tent in a park, a luxury hotel, or a cruise on the open seas, we all need a break from our normal routine to recharge our personal batteries. As each of us is different, we all have our own idea of what constitutes the best use of our time away from the office or the classroom.
As I write this, my family is preparing to go to a beach on the east coast for several days—our first true long vacation since our sons were born. Planning, sorting, arranging, packing—all of these take time and preparation. Maps are reviewed, online searches are made for attractions and sites of interest, arrangements to stop mail and newspaper delivery are made…all in the name of an orderly change. The destination is finalized, GPS loaded with our destination address, a temporary home is set for our Dachshund, and the car is packed…now what?
We spend a great deal of our lives looking forward to a break from the norm—whether it’s the typical long summer vacation from school or the ever-so-short week or two away from our jobs, it seems that planning for that getaway obsesses us for many weeks before the actual event.
Time away…from what? We never seem to give much thought about our spiritual lives when we plan a vacation…it’s just a Sunday or two missing church—God will understand! There are 50 other Sundays and other holy days to visit with Him…and of course, since He loves us, we don’t have to worry about Him! He’ll be right there when we get back…and if we need Him on our trip, He’ll be there as well!
Sometimes, we fail to plan for the most important part of our vacations—the spiritual recharge. My most restful, peaceful, relaxing, and recharging vacation was nearly twenty years ago. Pressures from my work were immense—the personalities were grinding my nerves to nothing—all was NOT WELL! I NEEDED a vacation!
For some reason, unknown to me at the time, I decided to visit a friend in Northeastern Pennsylvania—in the Pocono Mountains. Since their family worked as well, I would spend a weekend with them, then do something I had never thought of before—spend a week at a monastery! Arrangements were made and I arrived at the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. I was shown to my room, met my mentor for the week, Hieromonk Juvenaly—the monastery librarian, then was given the schedule of services…beginning with compline, vespers, and dinner. Church services were nice—quiet, peaceful, NO PEWS! Dinner was quiet as well…and my night’s sleep as restful as I had ever experienced.
At 4 AM, the alarm went off, I got dressed, then up the hill in the dark to the chapel for Matins and Liturgy…which began at 5 AM! I went up the road in the dark—no hint yet of the sunrise. The church was empty except for a monk lighting candles…and the smell! Beeswax candles were burning throughout the church—it truly smelled heavenly. The silence filled everything as I stood in the back, just letting it permeate every cell in my body, until the arrival of other monks and laity. Matins and Liturgy were just a bit more special, the words a little clearer, the hymns a little easier to sing, the prayers ever so much more REAL.
At the end of the Liturgy, when I went forward to kiss the cross and receive the Antidoron, I truly did not want it to end. I had truly been transported away from every care and concern…to be with God for those few hours in His house. Throughout the days, it seemed that there were not enough services, so I spent extra time in the church, just breathing in the scent of the candles, looking at the light on the icons, and thinking about what I was doing there. I even thought about a monastic vocation! Father Juvenaly told me that the life of an Orthodox monk was not for me—I must say I was crushed emotionally…but he said not to worry, God had definite plans for my life!
Now, two decades later, I can honestly say His plans for my life were nothing close to mine. I have loved every moment of my priesthood, but still fondly travel back to my week with God. Just the thought of it makes me smile…to truly vacation with Him, on His terms, in His house! I can take a microvacation just by thinking back to the first morning Liturgy.
As we travel to our family vacation spot, I will still think of that week. Each of us has been given the opportunity to experience God’s love and creation every day of our lives. Do not pass up the chance to see Him in everything around you—trees, hills, water, birds, animals, clouds, rain, storms—all are His creation!
On your vacation, take a few minutes to thank Him for everything He has given you—your health, family friends, and all good things come from Him. Visit an Orthodox church where you find yourself—go in and look around, breathe in the smells, experience a slightly different view of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Recharge your batteries…and save those memories for when the snow flies!
May God grant you a safe journey, no matter where you roam, a safe return to home and family, and His Love and Protection along the way!
Fr. Robert Popichak