It's summer -- the time we specifically dedicate to holidays and recreation. For many, summer recreation means two weeks of vacation from work, and we approach it similarly to how we approach work, though the goals are different. We want to accomplish relaxation, fun, or "getting away from it all" before returning to our real life.
But how much do we consider what really constitutes recreation for us as individuals, families, and religious communities? I believe that recreation is an essential, if undervalued, spiritual practice that can happen during vacation, but that can also take place within what we might describe as our "normal lives."
That said, I have had a hard time learning this myself, and last semester provided me with a poignant example in my work at Princeton University. In late April, the Office of Religious Life, where I am associate dean, and the Outdoor Action program, which is a wonderful effort to include wilderness experience for our students, co-sponsored a Nature and Spirituality retreat, which I led along with Outdoor Action's director.
Leading up to the retreat, I had been feeling ambivalent about my work, and my life. While I recognized the value of what I was doing and the people I was doing it with, I also had the uncomfortable feeling of being alienated by the frenetic pace and mechanistic quality of my own life. I approached each day as a series of things to get done and to check off. I don't think that I am alone in this -- I am so pulled by all of the demands upon me and the constant bombardment of media and communication that I often have the detached feeling of watching myself try to keep up with my own out-of-control life. So last semester, when the time came for the Nature and Spirituality retreat, I braced myself for it as one more thing to do and looked forward to checking it off the list.
But then an odd and marvelous thing happened. During the 36 hours I was on that retreat, I truly experienced recreation. Taking hikes in the natural world, being in a community of wonderful colleagues and students, thinking seriously about God and the environment, and laughing and telling scary stories around the campfire, I felt renewed, refreshed, re-connected and re-created.
More importantly, I recognized that there was nothing that I did on that brief retreat that I could not do as a part of my day-to-day life. Just as our spiritual lives are not relegated to that one day when we go to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, so recreation is not just for that time of year when we take vacation. Recreation, or re-creation, is available to us in the midst of our lives if we intentionally make room for it.
In order to help me to think about recreation, I wrote a few religious leaders who I knew could offer me some wisdom on the subject. And with their help I have come up with five modest suggestions to help guide us in our re-creation.
Rev. Jim Martin responded first, saying:
With no time for recreation and rest, there is no time for silent prayer, and, therefore, less opportunity for one-on-one time with God. Of course, there are many ways of relating to God, and many ways of praying, but a contemplative silence says to God, "You have my undivided attention." In such times are we are literally "re-created" as we meet the One who created us, and continues to create us.
The first suggestion for re-creation is to make time and space for prayer and meditation. Too many times I pray on the run, if you know what I mean. I am walking along and I will say, "Oh, thank you, God," or, "Help me, God," but what I am also indicating when I pray on the fly is that I have time to talk to God, but not really time to listen. Making a special time and place for prayer makes all the difference. Turning to the Bible, we are reminded of the many times that Jesus left his followers to go and pray alone in the wilderness. So many demands were made on Jesus that at times he needed re-creation, so he sought solitude in nature to be with God and to give God his "undivided attention," as Rev. Martin said. We see this after he was baptized in the Jordan, before his betrayal, and when he was healing the lepers; with so many tasks before him, the text reads: "He went into the desert to pray."
Just as Jesus made special efforts to find time for prayer with God, so would we do well to follow his example to be in the presence of the one who created us and continues to re-create us.
Another respondent to my email was Krista Tippett, who wrote:
I think a lot about how little seriousness we give to the essential biblical idea that human beings are created in the image of God. If that is true, it means we can learn about the nature of God in everything that defines us as human. And play is one of those things, like pleasure and joy, like being in our bodies in general, which Western Christianity in particular somehow forgot. You could say it's blasphemous to have forgotten this, and it is certainly holy to re-member it...
Krista is, of course, referencing the Genesis passage that reminds us that God created all of us in God's image and that this was very good. Hellenistic body/spirit dualism underemphasized the fact that our bodies are good and holy, failing to understand both body and spirit as part of the same whole, which is described by the Hebrew word nephesh, or "ensouled body."
This spirit-body split is reinforced by our modern technological world that causes us to value our minds and undervalue our bodies. Many of us spend hours on the computer, texting, or playing video games, and the only parts of our bodies that matter are our eyes and our thumbs.
The second suggestion for re-creation is to be aware and appreciative of our bodies through exercise, hiking, walking, yoga, dancing, skipping and just having fun in physical activity. It is not about judging our bodies or our various levels of abilities. Just the opposite, it is about finding deep connections to life through the bodies we have. Krista recently had on her show a fellow named Matthew Sanford, who has been a paraplegic since he was 13 and yet is teaching yoga now in an effort to find that deep mind-body connection.
Re-creation is about remembering that God made each of these bodies that we have, in so many shapes, colors, sizes and abilities, and that each one of us is very good. Recreation is about caring for and having fun in our bodies. As Krista said, because we are made in the image of God, being aware of ourselves and our bodies is one way of being aware of God who created us.
Another friend who responded to my inquiry was pastor and author Brian McLaren, who wrote:
God, the mystics tell us -- and the Scriptures agree -- is a joyful being. God takes constant, pure delight in the shimmering goodness of every mountain, every coral reef, and every summer meadow, from every galaxy to every grain of sand. When we play and relax and enjoy life's goodness, we are, in a sense, joining God in that holy joy.
The third suggestion for recreation is to get into some nature -- any nature! While it is great to be able to go scuba diving and see coral reefs as Rev. McLaren mentions, we do not need to go that far to be re-created through communing with creation. One of the exercises we did on the nature and spirituality retreat was to select a one-square-yard piece of land and simply observe all the life and activities that were happening. We can do that at any park or in our yard. It is about taking time to stop and look.
Recreation is about feeling our deep connection with the rest of creation and understanding our kinship with our fellow animals and plants under Sister Moon and Brother Sun, as St. Francis of Assisi taught us. It is about the joy and even ecstasy we can get by looking closely at the wonderful way even the simplest flower is made. In a wonderful prayer for the environment, my great grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch wrote this in 1914:
Grant us, we pray Thee, a heart wide open to all this joy and beauty, and save our souls from being so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that we pass heedless and unseeing when even the thorn- bush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God.
Not only being in nature, but feeling our deep connection with it and the joy that comes from its beauty and power is a sure path to recreation.
The fourth suggestion for re-creation is to make time for celebrations and meetings with friends and family. I joke that aside from my partner Brad, I don't really see that many people socially and that my closest friends are people whom I see maybe once a month. Yet re-creation is about recognizing that humans are social beings and that there is a powerful value in knowing others and being known. One of the hig lights of the nature and spirituality retreat was spending time in serious conversation, goofy story telling and silent reflection with a great group of people, some of whom I knew and some whom I had just met. Being with a group of people doing positive constructive activity (maybe some volunteerism) is a way to be re-created and reminded of the human community to which we all belong.
And the final suggestion is to take advantage of the recreational power of creativity itself. Each of us can be inspired to write a poem, do a dance, sing a song or imagine a story, and in those moments we are co-creators with God. It doesn't matter how "talented" we are, it is about the act itself. Don't judge, just create, and in that moment of realizing our creative power we can re-create ourselves.
Recreation is about experiencing the close presence of God, what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield taught me was called d'vekut in Hebrew, which allows us to go beyond constantly analyzing selves, to act with greater intensity and feel the moment more deeply. Re-creation is awakening to the Life that is pulsing all around us, feeling our deep connection to it. Re-creation is about living life, fully aware and alive, as an act of gratitude to God who created us and who continues to re-create us when given the chance.
I hope you re-create all summer and the rest of the year, as well.