The boys may be at pirate camp, but I got some "camp" experience in this summer, too. Though I promised Gannet Girl I wouldn't torment her with photos of Eastern Point, I can't resist one more...and confess to Stratoz that I didn't read any of the books I brought (except the novel)!
[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 17, 2008]
He instructed them to take nothing for their journey except a staff – no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purses. They were to wear sandals but he added, “Do not take a spare tunic.” Mk 6: 8-9
As summer approached, the stack of letters on my desk grew. “Dear Michael and Chris, welcome to camp!” they began, and were inevitably followed by lists: when to come and leave, what to bring, what to leave home, what new and exciting things you will learn. Sailing camp, day camp, golf camp…the calendar filled up.
Finally, the letter I’d been waiting for arrived. “Dear Michelle, we are pleased to welcome you to Eastern Point,” complete with its own list of where’s, when’s and what’s. I’m headed off – not to sail or hike or work on my putting – but for an eight-day silent retreat.
Last week, as I packed to leave, it occurred to me I was embarking on an experience not so different from my sons. I was going, as my snarky 14-year-old put it, to God camp. The brochure might as well have read: Camp Ignatius — 500 years of experience in helping people find God in all things. Deepen your relationship with God — opportunities to practice simplicity and stillness offered daily.
Instead of the counselors assigned to cheer on the campers, to keep them from drowning and make sure they go to bed at a reasonable hour, I get a spiritual director. She offers guidance for my times of prayer — both the formal hours and the informal moments where the Holy Spirit decides to open my eyes in the midst of a walk, makes sure I come up for air periodically and insists I don’t get up too early.
What do we need to bring? The kids’ camp letters are clear: sunscreen and swimsuits top every list. It’s left to me to discern what belongs in my bags. One summer I gave another retreatant a ride home. As I stuffed two bulging bags, a pillow and a stack of books into the trunk, my passenger tucked one small bag behind the front seat. This year I pack my sandals, and leave the extra tunic and books behind.
Every camp reminds campers to leave cell phones and electronics home, and to put their name on everything. On retreat, the electronic paraphernalia of modern life is equally unwelcome, but the simplicity we are called to on retreat goes further than surrendering these material conveniences.
For this short time we leave behind our names, professions, communities and responsibilities. I have no idea if the man sitting next to me at Mass is a Bishop or high school teacher – I’ve been on retreat with both – and it doesn’t matter. We are all here to let God see us simply as we are, not as how we are cloaked in the world.
All this is profound practice for the ultimate moment when we face God at the end of this life, alone and stripped of all that we have and all that we think we are. Jesuit Walter Ciszek recalled realizing as he faced a firing squad, “in a fraction of a second I would stand before God, dumbfounded and unprepared” and how acutely aware he was in that moment that no matter who we are and how we’ve lived, we are finally utterly dependent on God for our redemption.
The kids and I are all back from our summer camp sojourns. We’re all three sun burnt around the edges, and perhaps a tad less dependent on our electronics and a bit more on the God who made us.
Lord God, by whom our lives are governed with unfailing wisdom and love, take away from us all that is harmful and give us all that will be for our good. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.