Spiritual Practice on Vacation: If You Have To Ask, Don’t

Spiritual Practice on Vacation: If You Have To Ask, Don’t March 6, 2022

Over on the Patheos General Christian channel, I found this post titled How to Bring God on Vacation With You: 6 Tips.

I’m well aware of how our wider society misuses the term “triggered.” But it’s no exaggeration when I say this post was triggering for me, in the sense of “reliving trauma all over again.”

My family did not take a lot of vacations when I was growing up. We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, my father had a large hobby farm that demanded daily attention, and he didn’t see the value in travel for the sake of travel. The few trips we took were almost always to visit relatives.

I remember packing for one trip and my father insisting that I bring a Bible. Now, I did read the Bible occasionally growing up. I was trying to be a good Christian, and I was curious as to what it actually said. But the next to last thing I wanted to do on vacation was to read the Bible. He insisted. So I packed it. And then never opened it.

That was the next to last thing I wanted to do. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to church. We were rarely away from home on Sundays, but the few times we were, my father found a church for us to go to. And not a historically relevant church or a church with a different liturgy or worship style that would have been educational. No, he picked something as close to the small, independent fundamentalist Baptist church we attended at home as he could find.

It was… not fun. Reading this blog post reminded me of just how not fun it was.

And yet…

Orkney – 2016

Here I am, all these years later, and much of my travel is religious in nature. My trips to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were vacations, but they all had an element of pilgrimage to them. I’ve had strong religious experiences on these trips, especially in Orkney in 2016.

In 2013 I did the last thing I wanted to do as a kid – I went to church on vacation. My wife and I were in Boston – we attended services at First Parish Cambridge, a UU church founded in 1633. I didn’t feel the need to “go to church” but I wanted the experience of worshipping in a place where people have worshipped continuously for almost 400 years.

In 2018 I was in Wales at the Spring Equinox, and I – along with the rest of my mostly-Pagan traveling party – joined the Anglesey Druid Order for their celebration… outdoors, on a very un-Spring-like cold day.

Perhaps more importantly, the Gods to whom I make weekly offerings have made it clear I don’t get a vacation from that obligation. Allowances and variances are sometimes made, but not making the weekly offerings is simply not an option. Neither is skipping one of my four daily prayers.

My wife occasionally says I ended up more like my father than I want to admit. In some ways I am like him. In other ways, I’m critically different. That’s another topic for another time.

The topic for this time is what wisdom can be extracted from the tension between my traumatic childhood experiences and my deeply meaningful adult experiences of religion and spirituality while on vacation.

1. Keep your commitments

I remember the first time I was on vacation after the Morrigan let me know She wanted weekly offerings. I didn’t really think about it until the usual time came up. I told myself I was on vacation, and besides, it was raining. I heard loudly and clearly “I asked for offerings every week. You have a bottle of wine and a covered porch.” And so I made the usual offerings.

If you’ve made a commitment then keep it. If you promised daily prayers or weekly offerings or meditations at every full moon, then do them no matter where you are.

If your commitment was less specific, or if it’s not a commitment so much as it’s just what you do, then use your best judgment.

But keep your promises, even if you have to adjust your plans so you can.

pouring an offering of water to the spirits of the land – Northern Ireland – 2016

2. Don’t drag others into your commitments

I don’t have children and I do my best to not tell other people how to raise theirs. But I was a child once, and I have a long memory. You have the right – and arguably, the obligation – to introduce your children to your religious tradition. But as they begin to grow up, either they embrace that tradition willingly or they don’t. If they don’t, your primary obligation is to support them as they find what’s right for them.

And remember that just being in some religious traditions is child abuse.

My wife is not Pagan, but what’s religiously significant for me is usually historically significant for her – we often enjoy the same things for slightly different reasons. I greatly appreciate her patience and support when I have to do something devotional, and I do my best to keep from dragging her into something she doesn’t want to do.

3. If you need a break, take it

The whole concept of vacation is to change up your routine, to take a break from your ordinary life. This isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. It’s why liturgical calendars often include times of inversion, when the social order is turned upside down… for a day or two. It’s why we have intercalary times and liminal times, like from Winter Solstice through New Year’s Day.

During these special times, we often eat special foods but we don’t stop eating, because we need to eat to live. If your spiritual practice is like eating to you, then you’ll find a way to maintain it. If it’s not, then it’s OK to take a break from it.

First Parish Cambridge – 2013

4. But don’t forget to pick it up again

I do my best to exercise regularly. When things are going well it’s not a chore – it’s something I enjoy in and of itself, not just because “it’s good for me.” But sometimes I need a break. I overdo it and I’m exhausted. I get sick. The weather is horrid, and not just in the “wear better clothes” sense. Particularly as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that while there’s a time to power through, there’s also a time to say “I need to rest today.”

The challenge is to make sure a day or two of rest doesn’t turn into a week on the couch.

It’s the same with spiritual practice. The good news is that vacations have clearly marked beginnings and endings, so you know when it’s time to get back to it.

Just make sure you do.

5. Do there what you can’t do here

I can attend a UU Sunday service every week at home. What I can’t do here is attend a UU service with an almost 400 year old congregation in an almost 200 year old building, like I did at First Parish in 2013.

There are some unique churches in this country, but there are no 800 year old cathedrals. I enjoy touring the cathedrals of Europe. Even though I’m a Pagan I’d like to attend services in one of them at some point.

My strongest experiences of the Morrigan have been in my back yard here in Texas. I can pray to Her anywhere – and I do. But I can’t experience Her traditional home anywhere but at Rathcroghan, in Ireland.

And one of these years I want to celebrate the Summer Solstice with the Anglesey Druid Order, even though the sun rises there at 4:48 AM.

“Taking a break” doesn’t have to mean forgetting about your religion and spirituality. When you set aside some or all of your routine, pick up the things you can do where you’re going that you can’t do where you live. If nothing else, you can make offerings to the spirits of the place where you’re visiting to thank them for their hospitality.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral – Vienna – 2019

6. Do what’s best for you

Reading the Christian post that inspired this one was painful. It reminded me that while I’ve been able to exorcise the tentacles of fundamentalist doctrine from my soul, the wounds it caused are still there.

Writing this post reminded me that I haven’t thrown the baby of religion out with the dirty bathwater of fundamentalism. Despite that trauma, I have a healthy and meaningful spiritual practice and religious life.

In other words, I won.

Keeping your religious commitments on vacation can be a challenge, but with planning and adjustments it can be done, and done well. Where you don’t have commitments, do what seems best for you. We all need a break from our routines from time to time.

Mainly, take advantage of travel and time away from work to do what you can’t do in ordinary times.

And enjoy your vacation, whether it’s small or large or anywhere in between.

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