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How a simple family road trip becomes a spiritual retreat

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 08/06/23

Even if we have moments of stress, or bickering, or boredom, we should view our family time as precious and sacred.

I’m typing this essay while on family vacation. My wife and I have six children, all age 16 or younger. When we vacation, we all climb into our old beat-up Honda Odyssey. Only one of the doors still works, so we pile in through one side like clowns into a circus car. Inside, it gets loud. The four-year old sings at the top of her lungs, the conversation in the back row ranges from punch-drunk giggling to arguments about whose space is whose. There are, of course, the ubiquitous demands to stop and use the bathroom or stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream, and imperious queries about when we’ll arrive at our destination.

Parts of the van time I could do without, but I honestly find these trips relaxing.

We long ago gave up on fancy destination vacations packed with activities. Theme parks and museums and long plane trips are expensive and exhausting. We found that these trips left us more tired than when we left.

Easy does it

Now we take easy trips within the reach of a car drive. We like to hang out at a beach if we can, but local Missouri lakes are just as nice. We enjoy hiking in state parks, lounging in coffee shops, and hitting up the local go-cart place. Our goal is to keep the activities manageable, so we aren’t left exhausted and regretting our overly ambitious choices. We focus on spending lots of quality time together, even if it’s simply an afternoon aimlessly lounging by the pool.

Postcard Route 66, Missouri

Currently, I’m hanging out in a coffee shop in a small town in Missouri wine country. My family will join me in a few minutes, and we’ll go eat pancakes. After that, we might check out the town and window shop. The children saw a candy store that they’re eager to explore. Maybe we’ll wander down to the riverfront and the boys will clamber on some monument or other random object that they’re not supposed to be on. I’ll look the other way and pretend I don’t see it.

A problem of outlook

I’m not arguing that there’s only one way to spend time together. We do what works for us. To me, it isn’t the activity or destination that matters so much as the outlook we carry into our time together. This holds as true for a family vacation as it does for those few hours we spend with our children each day, the hours that aren’t soaked up by work or errands or sleep.

Our time together is precious. Even if our families have moments of stress, or bickering, or boredom, even if at times we need some space from each other, we should view our leisure time with family as a version of a spiritual retreat.

Parents often express frustration that they have very little alone time for spiritual development. They cannot find enough space for relaxation in order to decompress enough to have a productive retreat. All our free time is spent on vacations, sports practices, playing with the toddler. Sure, we might sneak away for a weekend getaway once a year, but it never feels like enough.

Yearning for spiritual escape

Because of this, there’s a tension that develops between family life and the spiritual life. Family obligations consume everything else and parents end up feeling spiritually impoverished. Many long to go off on a retreat like a monk, spending weeks in silent contemplation in the mountains or forest, seeing no one, praying and reading.

That isn’t going to happen, parents. The good news is, we don’t need to retreat like a monk in order to go on retreat. A monk has a vocation proper to his vows, but a parent also has a vocation proper to their own station in life. Parents can make a spiritual retreat with their family.

A family vacation, an hour at the park, a trip to the ice-cream shop, a walk after dinner, these are all mini spiritual retreats. So, too, is helping your child with homework, dicing the tomatoes for dinner, or playing a board game as a family. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The super-ordinary in the ordinary

The way I see it, the wonder of the ordinary reveals the super-ordinary. Through family, we can transition from the world of the natural seamlessly into the world of grace. We don’t need to abandon our responsibilities to go off on some grand, exotic spiritual journey.

Josef Pieper, in his book on leisure, writes, “A man who needs the unusual to make him ‘wonder’ shows that he has lost the capacity to find the true answer to the wonder of being.” He goes on, “When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep … It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together.”

Family camping

I completely agree. I encounter God regularly through my children. He is reflected in the smile of my daughter as she hangs from the monkey bars, the sweat on my son’s brow as he rides his bike, the concentration in my teenager’s eye as she paints a flower for a class assignment. Here I find contemplative joy, gratitude, and innocent beauty. If this is the spiritual life that God has granted me, I am more than satisfied.

Parents, this is our spiritual opportunity. The family is our retreat.

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