Empty, free

Through the recreation and leisure made possible by travel, people are restored and renewed, body and spirit. They return home to family and work with a new perspective and enthusiasm for life.” –St. John Paul II

A few rambling thoughts as I sit outside alone listening to the waves.

My family and I are on vacation at the beach, blanking out the rest of life for a time to focus with great intensity on nothing much. The word vacation comes from the Latin, vacare, which means “to be empty, free.” Early this morning I thought on that. Emptied of the cares and anxieties of life to recreate amid the carefree lilies of the field. Freed from toil and labor to find rest, refreshment and renewal. Freed from the strictures of efficiency wherein love is free to carry out its rebellion against the reduction of worth to usefulness. Emptied in order to be filled with wonder and gratitude for the sheer gratuitousness of existence. Emptied of stale routines to receive vibrant insights only to be had by stepping aside from the relentless flow of life. Freed from compulsive or addictive habits to play.

To play. Play is (I imagine) the ability to subordinate usefulness and purpose, pragmatism and efficiency to love, joy, laughter, music, beauty and spontaneous freedom bound only by limitless truth. Like art, play permits a freer expression of the human spirit’s limitless desire for the “fullness of being” than this life allows. Those who cannot play cannot pray, as prayer is consent to God’s unchained love, joy, laughter, music, beauty, freedom, truth, life. Which is why vacations should very naturally inspire prayer.

Josef Pieper famously said, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” On vacation with my family, I encounter the dignity of unjustified existence. Of existence justified by the gift of God alone. I am “at one with myself” only when I embrace this most fundamental truth of who I am: All is gift. That means that doing is always subsequent to the primacy of grace. Work, if it is not to become enslaving or dehumanizing, must freely flow out of gratitude, serving as my unique amplification of the gift.

I know a woman who prides herself on working seven days a week with very few vacations free from work. Once when we were talking, I complimented her on a quality she had. She said, “thanks, no offence but I just can’t believe that.” I was a bit stunned and asked her what she meant, and she just opened wide the floodgates.

She told me that it is very hard for her to receive a compliment or a gift. When she receives them, she said, she then feels even more burdened by a terrible debt to “earn” the compliment or “justify” the gift. They are more of a burden for her than a benefit, and, she said very candidly, she would rather not receive them at all. As we spoke more about this she said, “Tom, the reality is that underneath all of this I don’t feel worthy of anything good. I grew up in a high-achieving family where we were all judged by each other — who is better or worse at sports, smarter in school, harder working, tougher. I am burdened all the time by guilt and the need to prove myself to everyone. It’s all internal. I hate it, but I can’t seem to free myself. Even when I pray, since I feel that God is judging me the same way, is useless. Just makes it all worse, so I just say my prayers and don’t go too deep. So I figure it’s easier for me to wear myself down with work, shift the debt to others who then, I imagine at least, feel indebted to me because I exceeded their work and did more for them than they did for me. Better to wear myself down with work than to face the fact that I feel empty and worthless inside.”

She shed tears for most of the conversation. Then she said at the end, “And you know, Tom, you are free to share this with people if you think it would help.” I thanked her and asked if I could help her think through at least the spiritual part of her struggle. She said, “No, thanks so much. Because then I would be indebted to you. You see how sick this is?”

17 comments on “Empty, free

  1. Pat Beckett says:

    We, too, are at the beach. Reliving family memories and making new ones at Cape San Blas with 3 daughters and husbands and 4 grandchildren. Awesome to be here after 3 difficult months of medical challenges. Blessings.

  2. dancingcrane says:

    Amazing and so true. I was a scattered workaholic, a doormat volunteer taking on way too much and not accomplishing much in my own sight. Then I got sick with something they call “chronic fatigue syndrome” – as if a name meaning “you’re tired all the time” really helps when they don’t know why.

    It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I pray more. Pay attention to people more. I emptied myself of all the “stuff”, am careful of what I add to my life, and I’m emptying my home now of all the accumulated things I took on and should have realized I’d never have time for.

    God has many way of making you empty and free. This is only one of them. But everyone needs to find their way. Because the over-fullness never helps. It kills.

    • Jennifer says:

      If your friend is reading this, “come unto me, if your are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” God’s promises are reliable and trustworthy, He loved you into being, he loves you yesterday, today, always. Be not afraid- Good bless you, sister.

    • Jennifer says:

      My comments are all out of order… Dancing crane, it’s so beautiful to read how God turned your suffering into the profound joy of a deeper closeness to Him. Thank you for sharing your story of hope!

    • Thanks for the eloquent testimony — affirming this point so well. Makes me think of the C.S. Lewis quote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

  3. Jennifer says:

    I didn’t see the picture at first…. So awesome, without anything to provide depth perception it looks like Catherine is extremely tiny-or that you are a giant, possibly she is falling from your hand. Great cloud of sand, too. Just a great photo!

    This is ALL just one big old gift… That’s the beautiful, liberating truth, I’ve learned to my delight. I had heard that many times and it was easy enough to dismiss this as Pollyanna-ish; sneering that whoever came up with that line was overlooking all the crud. But I have to testify that it was doing St. Louis de Montfort’s consecration to Mary when the sense of my worthlessness became so horribly apparent. But then I first of all realized how refreshingly liberating this was; I really didn’t deserve anything – couldn’t possibly- and yet, look at all I had been given… Not my merit, just the exuberantly excessive gifts of The Good Gift-Giver. And secondly I experienced the realization that I really was not in control; not that I relinquished control – but made utterly aware that any sense that I’ve was in control – independent from what God permitted- was a frustrating illusion. Perhaps I should say, I realized I might have some limited, temporal control over circumstances, but the only meaningful control was to say yes to His Will and to cooperate. (Note I know it, Lord, help me do it).

    I will pay for your friend; it must be a heavy burden. May she know His love for her is unconditional, unable to be earned anyway, may she fall into her nothingness and land in the waiting hands of our loving father who will soothe her restless, weary spirit.

    Leisure, joy, flow from an order sense of who we are in him and how to live in the face of that never-fading love.

    So great to have a peek into your sweet family getaway. Thank you for sharing it with us all here. God bless you, guys!!!

    • Jennifer says:

      Pray not pay….

    • Thanks, Jennifer! As nos said, your personal and authentic witness argues far more persuasively than a mere conceptual argument. This is lived theology. Thanks for the good wishes and blessing!! And for your words to and prayer for this woman. I hope your end of school year is full of signs of the immense good you have done for so many as an instrument of grace. Peace to you and your family!

      • Jennifer says:

        Thanks for your blessing, Tom.

        I write everything as a reminder to my amnesiac self to actually live what I preach. May God grant me the grace to love well.

        Honestly every morning of late I wake up to a racing heart and a mile long list of last minute things I need to do to try to salvage the year, get the borderline kids to passing grades, and tie up all the endless loose ends. To try to fix all the mistakes and shortcomings on my part that I see for their glaring negative effects I’ve had on my students’ year.

        Your words about seeing the good seem so far-fetched right now so I really, really appreciate them. I feel like God is using your words as an order to force myself to keep positive and not drown in the stress of it all and to permit me to take reasonable breaks without guilt. He’s been sending me messengers of grace like this over the last few stressful weeks and I am so grateful that his mercy is so excessive.

        So thank-you.

  4. Maureen B.M. says:

    Tom,
    Your jump is so inspirational! You can jump pretty high …. kudos to u! Vacations are to refresh, relax and rejuvenate the body mind and soul! Especially the soul… in enjoy your vacation with the family. Say hi to all. I look forward to our family’s vacation this year too.
    Peace,
    Maureen

    • Thanks, Maureen! lol We’ve had so much fun together — up last night after midnight playing charades and laughing hysterically. Blessings on you and your family and on your future vacation! Hope to see you when I come to Tally again 🙂

  5. Nos says:

    “small scale ” you never cease to delight me in your openness in showing your weakness, you speak for so many who are not quite as comfortable as you in baring their heart for any to see… I being one of them…your prayer for the women workaholic in Tom’s story was beautiful, thank you for your compassion kiddo… your love shines thru in all your comments… keep em coming “J”… p. s. has it thawed out yet up there…

    Browny, you don’t think that at his age Tom can jump that high… it is obviously photoshoped .Enjoy your vacation Mo…

    Dancingcrane May you always walk in his light so that you can see all that stuff just waiting to trip you up..P.B.W.Y.A.A.

    Thomas ,you’re at the beach take the shirt off you geek… p.s. we have a new bishop keep him in your prayers he’ll need them with reprobates such as myself in his fold…thanks for this post ,it hits close to home… love to all…

    • Jennifer says:

      The snow is gone, the trees are green, there are even some flowers adding some colour to the mix. The river is still not about the same temperature as your refrigeration and there was a frost advisory last night. GAH! You are so sweet, thanks for your perpetual kindness to me. Love you, brother!

      • Jennifer says:

        As I say to my students, “Let’s try that again”: ** The river is still about the same temperature as your refrigerator.

    • nos — haha! Yes, I am a geek. But I have had enough skin cancer to make me keep it on. I grew up on a boat never wearing a shirt and now, being Irish, am paying for it! God blessya!!! T

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