Vacations should clear the mind, heal the soul

By Richard Ploch | Sep 09, 2013

As I drove a van filled with church retreat fellows, a conversation was happening in my right ear that I knew would change my life. Carol and I were using our vacation time to attend a conference on centering prayer at Ghost Ranch, a retreat center in the breathtakingly beautiful high desert above Santa Fe. It was a golden day in October and we were traveling to explore the Christ in the Desert Monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Carol told our retreat leader Sister Bernadette about the call to ministry that she had felt present in her life for many years, and I heard Bernadette say, “Carol, I believe it is time for you to go to seminary.”

A time I knew was nearing was now real. Our spiritual-pilgrimage-vacation had become an encounter with the Holy. In less than three months, Carol was a full-time seminarian – a call that would eventually bring us to the mountains of Western North Carolina. A vacation brought us to a turning point in life and it was good.

Sydney Harris, a poetic newspaper columnist of a generation ago, wrote an insightful piece about time off I have always remembered. He said that if you desperately need a vacation as an escape from your life and work back home, you may return unhappier than you were before leaving. You will spend much of your time counting the days and dreading the return. One wag said that a vacation is what you take when you can’t take what you’ve been taking any longer.

Harris, however, suggested that if you have these feelings, it’s time to either change the “back home” or discover vacations that bring healing.

Vacation as pilgrimage is a treasured time. We have taken three-day trips to Mepkin Abbey on the Cooper River near Charleston. At 3 a.m., you awaken with the Trappist monks for the vigils that begin a day filled with the gentle rhythms of worship, work, silence, and long walks among the live oaks covered with Spanish moss. Walking under the starlit sky at three in the morning is an experience of spiritual wonder in itself.

We’ve journeyed to the small Island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland to spend a week in an ancient abbey at a conference with people from seven nations of the world —  an encounter with life at one of its most joyful moments. We shared our stories, helped with meals and housekeeping chores, and hiked the island feeling God’s presence each step of the way. Iona is frequently called a “thin place” where heaven is near to earth.

Not able to go to sleep one evening at home, I picked up a book in one of our bookcases, “The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seekers Guide to Making Travel Sacred,” and read for an hour.

Author Phil Cousineau says, “In each of us dwells a pilgrim. It is the part of us that longs to have direct contact with the Sacred. We will travel halfway around the world and endure great sacrifice and pain to enter the Sanctuary, whether it is a church, shrine, cemetery, or library.”

I stopped reading Cousineau’s book when I came upon a quote from one of his fellow pilgrims, “I sincerely hope that all does not go as planned. Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the Divine enter in? The beginning of the adventure is to lose the way! How else will God find me?”

In Europe, people do not use the term vacation. Instead, they talk about going on holiday — a word derived from “holy day.”

Four summers ago, I wanted to take a study tour of the important places in the life of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, when I stumbled instead upon a journey that was even more inviting — to be one of a small group living for a week at C.S. Lewis’ home, The Kilns, a few miles west of Oxford, England. The American-based C.S. Lewis Foundation purchased the home twenty years ago and after extensive reconstruction, filled it with furniture of the 1940s and 50s and now invites individuals to come and learn more about this fascinating author and teacher. We heard fascinating talks on the writings of Lewis and then traveled to Oxford and Cambridge where he taught. After enjoying lunch at the Eagle and Child Pub where the Inklings gathered and raised the level of conversation to the heavens, we drove by the home of J.R.R. Tolkien where the tales of Middle Earth were created and visited the grave site of Tolkien and his wife.

A young seminarian and I shared what was once the study of Lewis’ brother Warnie during the week at the Kilns. Memorable? Yes, forever.

These trips may be too pricey for many, so we can also enjoy exploring the bountiful opportunities to take mini vacations right here at home. My favorite paper, The Mountaineer, is filled with announcements of craft shows and classes, music groups to join and concerts to enjoy, dances, live theater, book and bridge clubs, Vacation Bible Schools, tailgate markets and yard sales, nature studies and hikes.

Within minutes is a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway mentioned often in national publications as one of America’s most scenic drives. You don’t have to go far to get away from the television and noise of daily living to find more peace for your soul.

Tomorrow will come and go. With a bit of planning, it can be a day when the mind is cleared of worry and the soul is renewed.