Saint Vincent College is headed toward spring break as this day comes to a close. While the weather here hardly makes one think of spring (the meteorologists are predicting a powerful snowstorm in the coming days), our minds turn toward trips, time with family and old friends, relaxation, and the like.
Just last week I was reading St. Thomas Aquinas's reflections on the contemplative life, and discovered the Latin origin of the word "vacation." This, in turn, made me think about the difference between a break and a vacation: a break is time off from work that really exists in order to refresh us for more work. We "break" the semester in half so as to recharge ourselves for the second half, something like halftime in a sporting event. As such, the break exists for the sake of work; to use traditional philosophical language - it is a means to an end. By contrast, a vacation has value for itself, is a release from the world of work; vacation is taken for its own sake.
The origin of the word "vacation," which is the Latin vacatio, is helpful in thinking about this: vacatio can be translated as "freedom," and also refers to the money a Roman citizen would use to exempt himself from military duties. So, unlike a break, a vacation is freedom from work rather than freedom for work. More meaningfully, one can think of a vacation as the freedom to take up things that are higher than work, such as conversation among friends, art, poetry, and contemplation. In another, related sense, vacatio could be translated as "leisure," "stillness," or "quietude." In this most elevated sense, vacation is a way of living: it is the leisure of acting out of joy, the stillness that we enjoy when we reflect on the goodness of the created order and its Creator, the quietude that we receive from rejoicing in the gift of life.
There's a beautiful line in the Latin Vulgate version of Psalm 45 that illustrates the true meaning of vacation: "vacate, et videte quoniam ego sum Deus." Notice that first word, vacate; this term is a form of the word vacatio. In English, we could translate this as "Be still, and see that I am God." What a wonderful way of putting it: unless we are still, unless we are on vacation, we fail to see God, who is everywhere present should we have the freedom to look. So, then, I exhort you to be on vacation, not just take a break! And, with that, I believe my vacation has begun....