Bringing God on family vacation

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Recently, standing behind a mom in line at Disney, I heard her reflect to a friend, “I don’t know how my kids’ teachers puts up with them all day.”

People often feel ambivalent about family vacations. We can’t wait to go on them, but somewhere in the middle, we often wonder when it will be over. It might seem odd to think of family vacations as opportunities for our families to draw closer to God, but thanks to the sacrament of marriage, everything about family life is an opportunity to encounter God — if we know where to look.

Seeking wonder

God often reveals himself through wonder, and family vacations present natural opportunities to experience this gift. The psychiatrist Neel Burton defines wonder as a spontaneous experience characterized by feelings of “surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy.” He notes that wonder is “a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly beautiful, rare, or unexpected — that is, by a marvel.”

The 18th-century Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith, observed that wonder begins as rapturous, bodily experience that quickly escalates into something spiritual as it creates “that suspension of the breath, that swelling of the heart.”

Religious people often experience wonder in prayer and worship as God breaks through the noise of daily life and draws us into his arms. But even secular experiences of wonder, like staring into the Grand Canyon, being sprayed by Niagara Falls or catching fireflies on a hot summer night, are doorways to encounters with God. Through all of these and many other experiences like them, Our Father reaches out through his creation. The movement of his spirit inspires a sense of quiet awe that makes us want to reach back in love and thanksgiving.

God in the everyday

Children are especially adept at wonder, and even the smallest child can encounter God in those moments when, as Pope Francis put it, we are simply “wasting time” with our kids; holding them in our arms, playing tag, singing together, telling stories and just being quiet together. In every experience of wonder, if we know how to listen, we can hear the voice of God saying, “I love you. Draw closer to me.”

As with everything in life, our sense of wonder is crushed when we become so focused on the destination that we fail to enjoy the journey; when we get so focused on “getting on the darn ride already” that we forget to just be playful and silly together while waiting in line. But it’s wonder that makes family vacations both restful and memorable. It can be helpful to remind ourselves not to approach family vacation as another job that must be done with deadlines, objectives and goals that must be met or else. On vacation, the chaos can be part of the fun, if we remember to breathe and let it be.

When we bring God on our family vacation, he can help us remember to pause and experience the wonder that allows vacations to do what they are meant to: connect us to each other and to God. When the tension rises as we try to stuff our family’s carryon bags into the overhead compartment, a little prayer, “Lord, give me your peace. Help me to be gentle with my kids. And let us grow closer together on this trip,” can remind us to take a breath and be grateful.

Holiness on holiday

Taking time for Mass is another great way to bring God on family holiday. In fact, the word “holiday” is a contraction of “holy day.” For the secular person, the natural impulse is to assume that every day is another work day. The impulse to reflect and relax is a religious one. Going to Mass on vacation gives you a chance to pause and thank God for the blessings he has brought into your life.

Take little moments to pray as a family throughout the trip. Before pulling out of the driveway, ask God, out loud, for a safe and blessed journey. Before beginning each day’s activities, take a moment to thank God for another day together, and ask him to help you use this day to draw closer to him and each other. Say grace at meals, even at restaurants. It literally takes 8 seconds to pause and thank God for providing each meal, and pray for those who are going without. But it’s 8 seconds that enables you to recognize your family meal is actually a gift and not just an opportunity to shove food in your meal hole.

Most of us will have about 18 summer vacations with our kids. Making them count doesn’t mean spending more money to experience even more chaos and drama. It means asking God to help you experience the wonder that comes from marveling at the world he created and the love he has given you and your children to share.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including “The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too)” (OSV, $7.95). Learn more at: CatholicCounselors.com

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