Ora et Labora … and Vacation??

Religious … are joined to Christ in his poverty, chastity, and obedience by a “total life-long gift of themselves.” For the consecrated religious, then, times of rest are to serve the total gift of self, as the gift is expressed both in one’s apostolate and in one’s life in community.

As the summer months draw near, many people begin to think of vacation, to the chance to get away, to rest, to enjoy oneself.   Some consecrated religious also look forward to vacation.  Vacation for religious may look a little different: not sunbathing on a tropical beach, but reading a good book in the convent back yard.  Time off and vacation respond to a genuine human need for rest of mind and body.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “human life has a rhythm of work and rest” (§2184), and everyone, including consecrated religious, has need of rest.

At least some religious communities—I have in mind primarily apostolic communities—include personal time, time off and vacation in the “horarium” (Latin for “the hours,”  which refers to the name given to the daily schedule of those living in a religious community) on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis, as the case may be.  For the present purpose, I assume that the religious uses these opportunities in a way that is consistent with his or her way of life and vows.

Granted the need for rest of mind and body, I submit that the insertion of personal time, time off, or vacation in the conventual horarium is not a good way to achieve the end.  Although I will be speaking specifically about the consecrated religious life, the reflection which follows also has more general application.

First, it is worthwhile to observe that personal free time is a luxury.  Which mother caring for her children has personal time during the day?  Which single-parent working two jobs to make ends meet has personal time?  It is not only the poor who lack leisure, but even relatively well-off parents with children.  I remember distinctly my mother telling me, more than once, when I was a child, that mothers do not have vacations.  She said it by way of explanation, not with bitterness or regret.  She explained that when we went on vacation, she still had take care of us children, etc., so that it was actually more, not less, work for her (especially on our camping vacations during which we enjoyed mom’s cooking every day).   One may justly raise the question of how appropriate it is for one, who is vowed to live a poor and penitential life, to have the personal time many other people in the world lack.

A key difficulty in adopting the secular example of “having time off,” and a “vacation,” is one of language.  Some religious have abandoned monastic terminology in favor of using secular language in speaking of the monastery’s “dining room,” “bedrooms,” and of their “job” as religious, rather than referring to the monastery’s “refectory,”  “cells,”  and their “apostolate.”  In the same way, some religious have adopted the language of “time off” and “vacation.”

While it may be the case that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it is equally true that the names we give to realities do affect the way we think about them and, as a consequence, the way we act.   It remains true today that “the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8).  The secular world takes full advantage of the power of words to affect attitudes and actions.  They know that using the words, “fetus,” “pro-choice,” and “mercy killing” are crucial to achieving their end.  Presumably, young religious learn that “time off” and “vacation” in the convent have a distinct meaning, but, given that they grew up using these words, and that apostolic religious have daily contact with the world, the societal notions are likely to prevail over those imparted in an hour’s instruction.

Secular advertisements portray vacation as a temporary escape from the responsibilities, the worries, the challenges of life.  In our totally secularized society, work is often considered as a means to the end of “time off.”   During “time off” one is released from burdensome duties, and can finally “do something for me.”  Life is divided, then, between time devoted to duties, and time” for me.”

When religious refer to their “time off” or “vacation” what can they mean?  Time off from the apostolate, or from the common life?  The apostolate is an activity by which one works “to extend the reign of Christ to the entire world” (CCC, Glossary).  Does the religious take a pause from extending the reign of Christ to the world, or from the beautiful challenge of living in common?  Religious, in the words of the Perfectae Caritatis, (the 1965 decree by Pope Paul VI on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life), are joined to Christ in his poverty, chastity, and obedience by a “total life-long gift of themselves” (§1).  For the consecrated religious, then, times of rest are to serve the total gift of self, as the gift is expressed both in one’s apostolate and in one’s life in community.

The introduction of “personal time” tends to create an interior compartmentalization between “my time” and the other aspects of life.  All too easily, especially in our culture which is marked so strongly by individualism, there is a tendency to become possessive of “my time” which then affects the totality of the gift of oneself.  One could respond to the observation above that religious life already suffers from such compartmentalization.  In fact, the conventual life is much more compartmentalized than secular life:  not only is there division between work and home, but the individual hours of the day are assigned to particular activities.  Every normal religious feels, at times, the challenge of this division.  All the various aspects of the convent horarium, however—prayers, apostolate, recreation, meals—are unified by the intention of the religious.  The activities of the day, in fact, are varying expressions of the gift of self to our Lord.

The gift of self is primarily made to God, but it finds both expression and support in one’s life in community.  In fact, the Instruction Fraternal Life in Community points out that “the sign par excellence left us by Our Lord is that of lived fraternity: ‘By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (cf. Jn. 13:35).” 1  The Instruction adds that, “fraternal life is not the ‘entirety’ of the mission of a religious community, but it is an essential element” (§56).  A possessiveness of “my time” hinders the gift of self in community.   Today’s religious have perhaps more difficulty than those of earlier generations in making the total gift of self.  Fraternal Life in Community wisely comments that “often, young people come from a culture which overrates subjectivity, and the search for self-fulfilment” (§24), so that they must learn to give themselves, and the convent becomes “the place where the daily and patient passage from ‘me’ to ‘us’ takes place, from my commitment to a commitment entrusted to the community, from seeking ‘my things’ to seeking ‘the things of Christ’” (§39).  I submit that personal time and vacation do not assist in making this “daily and patient passage.”

Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., in her book, Forth and Abroad, describes, in her astute and engaging way, her response to a certain pressure to include vacation days in the cloister horarium:

Discovery days were initiated quite some years back, when it was revealed to cloistered nuns by a whole new contingent of psychologists, that they (that is, the cloistered nuns, be clear) were inhibited in their unbearably circumscribed lives, and must begin to take holidays.  Wishing to maintain recognition as being avant-garde folk, we instituted holidays.  Only we didn’t go anywhere.  Why should we?  There is more material within enclosure walls for the discovery that is at the heart of all genuine holidays than can be measured.

So, we decided on two holidays a year.  This meant that, aside from the eight-plus hours spent in liturgical and private prayer, the time needed for the domestic chores of the day, meals, and two portions of sleep—a few hours before the midnight Office, and a few hours after—the day was all free for holiday, discovery, new frontiers. 2

Mother Mary Francis shows herself to be as wise as the “men of this generation” in insisting that the reality in the cloister has a different name from the reality from which it draws its inspiration.  The reality is also distinct, in the sense that what Mother describes would not commonly be considered a vacation.  One fitting response, then, to the problem of inserting secular realities into the conventual horarium is to avoid using the language of the world, which is so wrought with connotations at odds with the total gift of self of the religious.

Another alternative to the inclusion of personal time in the horarium could be a revitalization of certain practices, beginning with the practice of recreation.  Recreation can provide necessary rest, and strengthen the bonds of fraternal unity.  In the traditional monastic practice of recreation, one tends to a manual task while engaging in conversation.  There is rest from the usual apostolic work, and also relaxation in engaging in conversation (which is not to say that there are no challenges in recreation periods).  The manual task provides opportunity to work on arts and crafts, mending and hand-sewing.  The traditional monastic form is only one possible way of arranging recreation, and, depending on the members and their numbers, it can take many forms, including more active recreation such as outdoor games or walks.  The essential element in recreation is that it is a common activity which provides relaxation of mind and, if needed, also of body. Recreation is not unqualified relaxation; it is not a time to relax one’s efforts at holiness, rather, the interaction with others provides opportunities for the practice of (and growth in) virtue.

In her wisdom,  our Holy Mother, the Church, also provides for rest in the weekly cycle of Sundays and during the Liturgical Year.  The secular world has its own cycle of celebrations (Christmas, for instance, begins immediately after Thanksgiving, concluding on December 26th).  Unlike the Liturgical Year, the secular cycle moves from celebration to celebration, omitting not only the reason for joy, but also the necessary prerequisites for it.

The living of the Lord’s Day, Sunday, “helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious life” (CCC §2184).  Clearly, not all religious are able to be free from manual labor on Sundays, but a concerted effort to live as fully as possible the Lord’s Day would provide many with needed rest, and would serve also as a witness to the primacy of Our Lord.

The full living of the Liturgical Year is not only the surest means to union with Christ, but it also provides for the natural balance of more intense efforts of prayer and fasting, with seasons of feasting and celebration.  Quite naturally, every aspect of convent life reflects the particular season of the Liturgical Year: the prayers and hymns at Holy Mass and the Divine Office, the food served in the refectory, the conversation at recreation.  The outward manifestations of the Liturgical Year are not its essence, but, as Blessed Columba Marmion, O.S.B., points out, “it is a psychological law of our nature—matter and spirit—that we should pass from the visible to the invisible.  The outward elements of the celebration of the mysteries serve as rungs in a ladder whereby our souls may rise to the contemplation and love of heavenly and supernatural realities.” 3 Living the Liturgical Year provides not only the necessary alternation of rest and effort of body and mind, but also increases our life in Christ.  What Providence of God to provide us with so rich a means of our human happiness and supernatural well-being!  It is a challenge to revitalize the living of Sunday and the Liturgical Year because the influence of our wholly secularized society is strong and pervasive.  Such living would seem to call for a convent culture capable of forming the thoughts, affections, and actions of its members.

The alternative suggestions to personal time and vacation mentioned above uncover also another meaning of rest, namely, that rest is found not only in the absence of labor, which serves for the recuperation of physical strength and energy, but also in the presence of another.  We find genuine rest by resting in someone else.  Our souls and minds find rest through communion with others, most of all, by resting spiritually on the Heart of our Savior, as did the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn. 13:23).   Our Lord bids us to come to him to find our rest: “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).  In him is our true rest.  Prayer, recollection days, retreat, and even the rule of silence, considered in this light, are sources of rest.   Rest in this sense is the deepest fulfillment of man’s desires, and we pray that this rest be granted to the faithful departed: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.”  It seems most fitting for consecrated religious, who are to embody, as Perfectae Caritatis says, “a splendid sign of the heavenly kingdom” (§1), to also be, above all else, heralds of the rest we find in Christ alone, now and for eternity.

  1. Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Socities of Apostolic Life, Fraternal Life in Community (Vatican City State: Editrice Libreria Vaticana, 1994), § 54.
  2. Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., Forth and Abroad: Still Merry, On Land and By Sea (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p. 58.
  3. Dom Columba Marmion, O.S.B., Christ in His Mysteries, 10th ed.(Saint Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1939), p. 23.
Sr. M. Regina van den Berg, FSGM About Sr. M. Regina van den Berg, FSGM

Sister M. Regina van den Berg is a member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Martyr of St. George, living presently in Rome, Italy. She made her perpetual profession of vows in the year 2000, and in the same year obtained her PhD in philosophy from The Catholic University of America. Since that time, she has served in various apostolates of her community. She presently serves as a secretary.


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