Imagine yourself on vacation. Imagine yourself, say, reclined in a hammock beside a blue mountain lake, a satisfying book resting face down on your chest, your mind sinking gratefully into the twilight of a nap. Under these circumstances, would you think, “How irrelevant all of this is?” Would you scorn the irrelevance of the hammock and the lake to next week’s meeting of the Assessment Evaluation Committee? Would your somnolent mind protest that it does not see the relevance of the book and the nap to the urgent and annoying problem of that leaking drain-hose behind the dishwasher?
I’m guessing you would not. I’m guessing that, under these circumstances, it would be the Assessment Evaluation Committee that appeared irrelevant to the hammock and the lake, and that it would be the leaking drain-hose that appeared irrelevant to the book and the nap. If this were not so, I would have to suggest that you had failed to grasp the meaning of vacation, which is, curiously enough, that you vacate—that you “leave behind”—just these sorts of petty vexation. Temporarily vacate, to be sure. You must, indeed, next week take your place at the meeting of the Assessment Evaluation Committee, and you must, indeed, someday crawl behind the dishwasher with a flashlight and a screwdriver.
But that day is not now!
On this day, in this hammock beside this blue lake, you properly join with King Solomon and say.
“All is vanity and vexation of spirit”
All except this lake and this hammock and this book and this nap, that is.
* * * * *
The word relevant comes from the word relieve, and therefore suggests removal or mitigation of some sort of weight or burden. If I were struggling to carry four sacks of groceries into the house, the appearance of my son would be relevant, the appearance of our cat would not. Aspirin are relevant to a headache, but not to a flat tire. Water is relevant to a wilting plant, but not to a chipped tooth.
Relevance is, in other words, relative.
* * * * *
When I was in high school in the early 1970’s, the senior class somehow contrived to run a “Relevant Education Day.” So we all set aside our algebra and chemistry books, and eagerly signed up for seminars devised by the more presumptuous seniors. I know I signed up for Paranormal Psychology and Bicycle Touring. I’m not so sure about my other seminars, but they might have been How to Wear a Leisure Suit and Basic Necking.
The seniors who ran these seminars knew nothing about any of these topics. I remember the young man who taught Bicycle Touring showed us the frame backpack with which he intended to peddle to California, or it might have been Tibet. But today I’ll pass over this ignorance and simply note what relevance meant to the pimply teenagers of Brockport High School on Relevant Education Day. “Relevance” was a promise to relieve a burden that those pimply teenagers felt weighing on their backs at that very moment.
It meant relevant (or imagined to be relevant) right now.
This particular pimply teenager was, for instance, apparently weighed down by an urgent need to know more about paranormal psychology, bicycle touring, leisure suit wearing, and—most urgent of all—necking.
To these oppressive loads, his ignorance of algebra and chemistry were mere feathers (as they, indeed, remain).
* * * * *
I did not stumble through the doors of the Church looking for Relevant Education Day with stained glass windows. I do not arrive at mass each week in search of relief from whatever this pimply world feels (or imagines that it feels) weighing on its back at this very moment. I don’t look to my priest and bishop to pick up shouting where the secular editorialists, bloggers, and experts left off.
I’m there because I need a vacation from all that, and because I need something relevant to an altogether different burden.