By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin
The summer is winding down. The mosquito bites on my ankles have waned in their itching intensity. As family camps and youth camps have begun drawing toward closure, we are left with our reflections on this peculiar communal practice of going into the wilderness together to draw closer to our God and remember our belonging to one another.
It is not unusual to feel a strange dissonance in these early stages of entering back into normal daily rhythms. It may still be beyond articulation, but what one senses in the soul is a restlessness with the way things are compared to the glimpse of the way things were in a more relationally, spiritually grounded way of being. Many will have just experienced the holy relief of pure acceptance for the first time. The desire to hold on to those moments of God-presence and radical inclusion is surely an understandable feeling.
Every year, I notice something interesting as we dialogue with each other about the initial strangeness of re-entry. It has to do with what is really real. Comments will range from, “time to go back to the real world” to “camp is the real world and everything else is fake.” I find myself increasingly troubled by both ends of the “real world” spectrum and how we attempt to make meaning of these transformational moments in our lives. Isn’t all of it real?
Without integration, the experiences we’ve had lose their transformational potential in our lives and the world. The mystics throughout the centuries demonstrate that genuine spiritual experience is not meant to occur in isolation but always has real-life implications. To so quickly label one experience real and the other somehow less real is to diminish the potential for both experiences to impact each other. If this is all God’s world and God’s Spirit is incarnate everywhere within it, then all that is required of us is our attention in whatever place we are in to discover it!
Perhaps in places like youth camp and SPEC and Reunion (family camp), we find ourselves more diligently practicing attention to God’s Spirit through regular personal and communal spiritual practices like worship and prayer and shared meals and time for holy conversations. The time, which seems to be so scarce in other moments of our lives, is suddenly set-aside in abundance for this exact purpose. Does this make the other times any less real? No! Every moment, every minute is an invitation to dwell deeply in the reality of God no matter where we are or what is on our daily agenda.
In Heart of Flesh, Joan Chittister challenges us to see more clearly the link between our spirituality and the culture surrounding us. “The spiritual life, because it must be lived in the present to be real, is anything but esoteric and abstract. Culture and spirituality, in fact, are of a piece. Culture creates the framework within which the spiritual life comes to be and grow. Some people, of course, look to spirituality for refuge from the real world… But a life that takes us out of life is no life at all.”
An authentic spiritual life allows the deep roots of experiences like camp to shape the way we see the whole real world around us on a daily basis. We are not called to reject this world as some half-truth giving it our half-heartedness while counting down the days until we can escape again. We are called to draw from the reservoir within us of stargazing around the campfire and prayers for healing and inspiring messages of justice and the dream of being one in Christ to influence every detail of our daily actions. We are called now to embrace everything and everyone as real and as revelation of God’s real presence… even what we don’t want to see or accept.
The dream of shalom that has grown as a foundation in the soul does not remove us from the real but prompts us toward deeper engagement as we encounter injustice and separation of many kinds and feel that dissonant nudge reminding us of another way that can be real if we have courage enough to live its truth. We can’t forget that hungry children are also real and so are warzones and long lines on city streets waiting for the homeless shelter to open. If our spirituality is not also for these real spaces and only takes place occasionally in seclusion, we may need to ask some hard questions of ourselves.
Yet, what is also real is the power of invitation to a common table, a holy conversation, to the church which can become that place in our lives that mends the wear and tear in our shalom dream from its weeklong living. What remains real is the radical acceptance you found (even when you feel rejected) and the belonging you felt (even when you feel alone) and the relationship with the Holy that came to you with an embrace you craved (even when it’s hard to feel at times). You can trust in the realness of these things too. You can live their realness everyday and strive to make them real also for those who have never sat around a campfire singing “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.”
I would like to suggest that this year we embrace all of it as real, all of it as space for holy encounter! The fact that these incredible experiences we’ve had are real means that they can happen and become real again anywhere and anytime we open our hearts to the reality of God’s presence wherever we are!