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Vacation and Paradise

In second grade, at some point in the frozen middle of that Minnesota winter, my parents told us we were all going to Florida for spring break and I began running and jumping through the house for joy.  We'd taken several summer trips before – always a thrill – to the North Shore of Lake Superior but I'd never traveled south.  And by then I'd heard enough about Florida for my imagination to feast the rest of the winter. 

Nor was the trip a disappointment when it came.  Boarding the plane, the take-off and flight were like nothing I’d experienced.  And then being in Florida, I was in a state of continuous wonder, first at how I could just have been in snow and ice and was now in such sweet summery air, with sunlit balconied buildings -- their pinks and yellows like something from Dr. Seuss -- rising up from plush lawns and flowerbeds as we drove in the rental car.  Fountains spilled up everywhere, and I couldn’t get enough of the palm trees, their trunks graciously curving this way or that way up to fascinating heights where their waxy fronds burst out from amidst clusters of coconuts.   And all of it against the ever-present background of the turquoise water of the Atlantic.  I’d never seen so much color in my life. 

Five years later when we went a second time to Florida, the experience didn't match the expectation.  I was now in seventh grade.  I have some good memories of that trip too, but I distinctly remember saying to my Mom that I felt let down:  it wasn't as amazing to be in Florida as it had been the last time.  Melancholy had entered upon the scene.  As I would read another five or six years later:  "There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.  / It is not now as it hath been of yore;  -- / Turn wheresoe'er I may, / By night or day, / The things which I have seen I now can see no more."

The day before yesterday I returned from the Jersey Shore where my wife and I and our three kids spent a week with my wife's side of the family.  The weather was perfect.  The rental house was the best we'd had in a number of years.  A colleague of mine lent me a beach canopy that was fantastic and saved us from all the frustrations of multiple umbrellas.  The kids had a whale of a time with their cousins and grandparents. 

One of the mornings, we’d gotten a sitter for our 19-month-old, and Julie's Mom took our older two out for breakfast so Julie and I could bike along the boardwalk and stop somewhere in nearby Asbury Park for a leisurely breakfast of our own.  It was as we were biking in the freshness of the day, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, that I was aware that here again as at a number of other moments during the week, the gorgeous beauty of what surrounded me -- the surf and the sky, the light, the goodness of being able to spend time with those I loved -- was something I wasn't fully or directly able to come into contact with.  It was all there, I was experiencing it, I was even appreciating it.  But it wasn't transporting me entirely.  It didn’t have the glory and the freshness of a dream.  In the past, this awareness would have bothered me -- everything I'm seeing is so perfect and what I'm doing is so nice, why aren't I in a state of ecstasy, of sublime tranquility?  But this time instead of being bent out of shape I felt that it was all right.  I'm here, enjoying this to the extent that I am (which was a pretty good extent, actually).  Life even at its purported best doesn't always deliver to the max . . . vacation isn’t paradise -- it’s okay. 

Alexander Schmemann once wrote in a journal entry, “Paradise is open to children; it shines from them.”  There were lots of reasons why it wasn’t wide open to me that morning.  There was the constant low-level anxiety that comes with being a parent especially of a toddler.  While I'd been watching Jonathan the previous afternoon he'd started eating Goo (its actual trademarked name) the older kids had brought back from an amusement park in Point Pleasant; he’d gotten ahold of a Superball the size he could choke on; he’d been within a half-second of shattering a vase; at another point he was walking around with the IPad of one of my nieces.  The kind of stress all this sort of thing induces -- and like any parent, I could multiply examples -- has a way of lingering in one's system.  No doubt I still had plenty of it coursing through me as I was biking the next morning on the beach. 

News of atrocities and injustices around the world, somewhere beyond the crisp line of the horizon where ocean met sky, hung in the otherwise exquisite air.  A part of me feels a tug of guilt about anything less than traveling personally to the sites of the worst of today’s unfolding crimes against humanity and putting myself directly in harm’s way to stand up against them.  Though nobody has advised me to do this the tug of guilt (which I think we all must feel or suppress) about not doing it forms an essential part of the backdrop of every earthly vacation and reconfirms that it’s not paradise.  

On the near side of the horizon were also all the ordinary and inevitable little misconnections of everyday human interaction.  The ones that arise between my wife and me we try to work through.  That level of emotional investment can't occur across the board, though, with everyone.  I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of every person in my life just as I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of the beach on a clear morning (and the former deficit no doubt underlies the latter).  The best I can often do is to know I'm not doing others justice, not encountering them fully.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Catholic theologian, sandwiches a comment of his own between two quotations from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:  "it is 'the lofty pathos of our fate that every "thou" in our world must become an "it"'; the direct relationship must become 'latent'; 'it is impossible to live in the naked present -- it would devour us.'" To be completely alive to the presence of others is more than we can manage. 

Although I agree with Buber’s idea of the impossibility of living fully in the naked present, I’m also struck by the thought that God’s living in it means that in communion with God I’m able to have access to it, myself.  Of course my communion with God is imperfect from my side:  since I’m not fully present to God I’m not able to be fully present to those to whom He’s fully present; I don’t know others as God does.  But even this awareness makes a difference.  At the end of a day (and not only the end) when I pray to God for another person, I’m essentially admitting that I’m not and haven’t been fully present to him or her as God is.  This is also to say I haven’t loved the other person fully.  People to whom I’ve done nothing wrong, but of whom I’ve had fleeting thoughts that haven’t done them justice or to whom I’ve not given myself fully with all my attention, are that much less distorted, less reduced, less rendered an “It” instead of a “Thou,” each time I pray for them, however modest the prayer.  And if they have in any way distorted or reduced me, rendered me an “it,” I’m able in prayer to forgive them, as I know I’m in need of the same forgiveness. 

Anxiety, suffering, sin, on big levels and small, infiltrate vacation:  no shilling Sherlock!  It shouldn’t be news to anyone beyond about the second grade but it somehow still is to me, yet I also see it’s begun sinking in.  I used to have a harder time than I do now mixing religion and vacation (this year, I wasn’t even too disappointed that our week at the beach fell within the Dormition Fast, although I should say that I didn’t strictly stick to it).  Having once hoped for vacation itself to lift me above every earthly care, I used to resist accepting in the course of it the ongoing need to be unburdened through worship and prayer of what wasn’t ceasing to weigh me down.  As I’ve better come to grips with how vacation in itself doesn’t make me well (any more than, in itself, work does), that there’s a mystery of paradise beyond it, that this isn’t that, the interesting thing is how much more often I’ve been able to be at peace with the lack of total peace, to be reasonably happy with the less than soaring happiness, to appreciate the beautiful surroundings even as I sense that some vital essence in them eludes me.  The perfect, as the saying goes, doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good; the good can be accepted here and now because of the promise of more that it holds.

In another journal entry in which he sought to express his Christian faith in its most basic form, Fr. Schmemann wrote:  “One thing seems clear:  the basic coordinates of this faith are on the one hand, an acute love for the world, for all that is given (nature, city, history, culture); on the other, the conviction, as acute and as evident, that this love itself is directed at ‘the other’ (the ‘all is elsewhere’) that this world reveals.  In this revelation is the world’s essence, calling, beauty.’”

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics.

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