What’s the question most people ask when they meet you for the first time—“What do you do?” Right? While we were in Ireland, NO ONE ever asked us that question! Instead, the first question they always asked was, “Are you on holiday?”
After several encounters of this nature, David and I began to talk about the meaning and implications of “being on holiday” and decided we liked it so much better than our American equivalent “vacation.” Vacation suggests the idea of leaving something behind; vacating our normal, ordinary life. While holiday, at its root means “Holy Day,” and conveys the notion of setting aside time for special celebration and meaning-making. Doesn’t that sound much more soul-nourishing?
So what turns a vacation into a holiday? I’ve been reflecting on that since our return and here’s what I’ve surmised:
The Posture of Pilgrimage
What came to mind first-off was a posture of how we journeyed, one that might best be described as “pilgrimage.” This is an old term, even found in the Psalms, and conveys the idea of setting one’s heart toward God as you venture toward a particular Holy place. There are other synonyms to describe this posture, like saunter, meander, or—my favorite—peregrinate! In my first book, The Wide Open Spaces of God, I tell the story of three Irishmen called “peregrini” who “stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.” Their expression captures for me how I experienced our gentle meandering toward the places we visited, allowing ourselves to notice and even be “sidetracked” in order to respond to whatever crossed our paths. We received many unsolicited gifts from our pilgrimage.
A Capacity to be Present
While a vacation can imply mindlessness and emptying, holidays invite our full attention and presence. As I think back to our time, I’m most struck by how immersed I became in all that surrounded me. I was given a gift, a capacity to be present, and that caused time to move slowly and allowed each day to feel long and rich and full. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience quite like this, especially for such a sustained amount of time. Being present to whoever and whatever allows us to take life in, appreciating and receiving all the goodness it offers. Oh, how I wish I could live this way all of the time!
A Season of Rest
Perhaps the primary invitation of a holiday or Holy Day is for extended rest from work. I need seasons where I not only don’t work, but I don’t even think of work! A sustained break from work and all things related to it was so healthy and good for my soul. I’m especially grateful for the length of time we were able to be away—three weeks! It’s fairly common for Europeans to take an entire month for summer holiday, while most Americans scramble to take a week off for a vacation. I think back to my previous comment that NO ONE ever asked us what we did. Is our preoccupation with what we do, in fact our tendency to base our identity in what we do, reflected in our inability to take much-needed seasons to rest from what we do? I suspect so.
Immersed in Natural Beauty
At the end of our three weeks, we flew to London for a few days. Before we landed, we wondered if this noisy, bustling city would be an assault to our senses after being immersed in so much natural beauty. To our surprise and relief we actually loved London! However, we can also say without hesitation that our time in the mountains and along Ireland’s shoreline truly nourished our souls. Nature has a way of doing that. In our upcoming book, When Faith Becomes Sight (Nov/2019), we’ve devoted an entire chapter called God’s Big Book about the curative properties of the natural world. In it we write that “nature offers us the chance to be immersed in an environment where everything lives from its true essence. Nothing in nature is a façade. A rock is a rock; a blue jay is a blue jay; a creek is a creek; and a wild flower is a wild flower. And that’s significant because we—like no other living thing—struggle to be real and to live from our true essence.” I don’t think it’s possible to be on holiday without some strong doses of time in nature!
Thin Places of Prayer
A vacation can suggest the idea of unplugging—even from all that is spiritual, all that is God. But a holiday is different. Holidays create a seamless garment of the temporal and spiritual, often calling forth prayer as a natural response to our earthy encounters. My time in Ireland was marked by several of these “thin places” of prayer. They were naturally occurring, poignant moments when I was moved from within to pray; to pray for the people of Ireland, to thank God for the beauty that surrounded me, to pray for someone who appeared distressed, to praise Jesus for the peregrine falcon that just flew overhead, and to pray for three women dear to me who have cancer. This vocation of prayer made our holiday truly feel like a Holy Day.
Welcoming the Stranger
In the past, when we would be on a vacation our instincts were to “hole up” and close ourselves off from outside social interactions. We get enough of that at home, right! I think one of the most impactful take-aways from of our time in Ireland was experiencing Irish hospitality. “No one is a stranger, only a friend you haven’t yet met!” We learned that being on holiday includes welcoming the stranger and being welcomed by strangers—and we vowed that we wanted to bring this back with us. Even last night, as we ate dinner at our favorite neighborhood spot, Shoefly Public House, we struck up a lively and warm conversation with a family next to us. Both of us said afterwards, “That felt like Ireland!”
Gratitude for Unmerited Blessings
If you were to ask me the strongest, most prevailing emotion I had during our time, I would without pause tell you—gratitude! I was keenly aware of what a privilege it is to have the time and resources to travel like we did. And there was so much, at every turn, to be thankful for—so many unsolicited gifts, serendipitous graces that I couldn’t help but feel grateful. I felt such gratitude toward David. He served me and took care of me so beautifully. God protected us and fulfilled the longings of our hearts. While vacations can feel like something you’ve earned, something you’re due, holidays are gifts of unmerited blessings.
Now do you see why holidays are an upgrade from vacations? I’m hopeful that by reflecting on what I’ve learned, I will be won-over to the wisdom and worth of “being on holiday” each and every year!