"I'm bored… there's nothing to do… are we there yet… play with me." These are the calls of our children during summer vacation. Rather than hearing these statements as pesky intruders, it is possible to think of them as voices crying out from the wilderness of the young soul, seeking activity, connection, and stimulation within the safe environment of the family vacation.
The Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition thinks of the human being as having a powerful ability, the ability to see God and His creative love in all things. This ability is located within the nous. The nous is that part of each of us which looks out into the world, at other people, and into our own hearts and tries to make sense of what it sees. The healthy nous always sees God's love at work. The broken or injured nous tends to be more self-serving, competitive, fearful, vindictive, unrealistic, and deceptive.
Most of all, the nous is seeking ways in which to engage others, and all of God's creation, with the powers of the soul. While our spiritual tradition speaks of many powers of the soul, the ones most commonly referred to are thymos, epithymia, and dianoia. Each of these powers requires loving care, discipline, and exercise in order for the nous to do its work of finding God's love.
Thymos is the fiery power of healthy aggression, and it is the basis for virtues such as courage, protectiveness, honor, moral strength, and righteousness. It is what gets tapped into when children defend peers against unfair attacks. It is the source of conviction in children saying "no" to temptation or pressure from schoolmates. Injured thymos is the source of bitter rivalry, deceptive game-playing tactics, and hopeless resignation.
Epithymia is the magnetic desire for beauty and connection, and it is the basis for the human ability to reach out in compassion and affection, to appreciate deeply the beauty of art and the natural majesty of the created world. Injured epithymia is the source of exploitative relationships, ones designed to gratify only one person. Injured epithymia triggers greed, relentless hunger, and distorted desire for control of beautiful objects.
Dianoia is the human ability to reason, to make sense of things in an intellectual way, to find meaning in the events and situations of everyday life. Healthy dianoia is realistic, with an ever-present hopefulness. It finds meanings which are intellectually sound while still remaining open to mystery. Unhealthy dianoia either insists on absolute and rigid explanations for events, or gives up any hope that there is life-giving meaning to be found.
The Powers of the Soul on Vacation
The powers of the soul, then, need both discipline and freedom in order to blossom. They require both healthy input (prayer, images, relationships, teaching) and opportunities for vigorous and safe expression. Summer vacation is an ideal time to try out some ways to build up the powers of the family's soul. The key here is to participate in activities mindfully and skillfully, allowing the activities to serve as expressions of thymos, epithymia, and dianoia.
The best structure for developing healthy powers of the soul is the structure of everyday life. Make use of the events and transitions during vacation to build in a prayerful mindfulness, a constant gratitude, for God's loving presence with the family. Adopt a prayerful orientation to each day of the vacation. Without letting this become burdensome, some ways to do this include:
- Start each leg of the journey with a prayer and the sign of the Cross
- Say a prayer before each meal
- Recite the Jesus Prayer out loud, together, 5-10 times, once each day
- Spend 3-5 minutes per day while driving reciting the Jesus Prayer silently
- End each day with a prayer review of the day, emphasizing gratitude
- Bring an icon to keep by each family member's bed
One of the keys to spiritual life is nepsis, or watchfulness. Basically, this means we have to stay awake and aware of what we are doing. This takes practice. The good news, however, is that you are supposed to still have fun, maybe even more because you notice that you are having fun. You can practice building up and renewing the powers of the soul with the activities of the vacation. This can include:
- Building sandcastles
- Hiking and swimming
- Miniature golf
- Watching sunrises and sunsets
- Stopping at scenic views
- Showing each other physical affection
- Eating great, fresh food
- Going to movies
- Reading books
- Talking to each other
- Playing road games
In the end, this is meant to be simple, and yet, it is never easy. It can be very difficult to develop a sense of awakeness, especially on vacation. At the same time, the powers of our souls cry out for this. By tapping into the simple structures and rhythm of a prayerful vacation, the whole family can experience their time together with abundance and pleasure.
George Stavros is Executive Director of the Danielsen Institute at Boston University and a Clinical Associate Professor of Pastoral Psychology. He is a licensed psychologist, certified pastoral counselor, and a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. His clinical, teaching and research interests are in psychotherapy training and the connection between depth psychotherapy and Eastern Orthodox theology.
This article initially appeared in the June 2003 Youth Pulse Listserve.