I grew up at summer camp. The day after I turned nine, I climbed on a bus and crossed the river, heading up into the Gatineau Hills. I wasn’t going out into the unknown – my older sisters had been to this camp before me and there was even a strange photo of my parents standing on the beach in funny oldfashioned bathing suits. Despite that, I knew I was taking a new step. This time I wasn’t a tag-along day-tripper or even a weekend guest. I was going to be a camper.
That first-ever week, I got up early every morning to swim before breakfast. Usually it was older campers who went for the polar bear dip but, fierce nine-year-old that I was, I was determined to go. Every morning, the lake was beautiful. Sometimes the sun shone brightly and caught across the surface. Sometimes a silent grey mist lingered over the water and it was hard work to step in. I loved the challenge – the everyday work of it – and how strong and alive it made me feel.
After that week, I was at camp every summer and, when I got older, I was a member of the staff. My teenaged years revolved around summers at camp and long weekends at camp and looking forward to camp. The rocky lakeshore and the skyscraper white pines were my landscape, my constant daydream. I taped summer snapshots to my high school locker door and dreamed of the next time I could get on the bus and head north.
The camp was owned by a collection of local churches who would each contribute staff, campers and funds to keep the place afloat. We spent our long summer days playing games in the field and in the forest. There were hikes and obstacle courses, archery and arts and crafts, Bible study and campfire. All the noisy fun and chaos of kids’camp. But the centre of the camp for me was always the lake. I loved its silent mornings, its rainy afternoons, and its quiet, shining nights broken by loonsong.
The ‘Greater Silence’
I have been reading recently about our Benedictine cousins. Each day in a Benedictine community, there are times for teaching and conversation, but there are also times set aside for communal silence. Then comes the “Greater Silence” every night between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. In this pattern of community life, they recognise the ongoing stillness from which all things spring. In the midst of all bustling human activity, God’s peace is present.
I wonder if there is something parallel when it comes to wilderness.
At camp, I discovered a beauty that keeps going. The lake continued without me. Days and months might go past, seasons change; I could come and go but the place was there, continuing in its own song of praise. There is a lesson on grace in that.
From the rocks and the trees, I also learned that the world is already built. We don’t have to make it for ourselves. I didn’t need to invent the lake. Creation had happened and was sustained. For a suburban kid from Ottawa, this was a glimpse of something real. It wasn’t ideal or romantic because there were mosquitoes, of course. And blackflies. Thunderstorms, soggy mornings, twisted ankles and bruised feelings, too. But it was real. And in this wilderness place and with this gathered people, I could be real, too. Another lesson in grace.
When I went to university, I met people from across our country who had similar memories from summer camps and family cottages. In Canada, we are blessed with a wealth of wilderness. It felt to me as if there were pockets of space coast to coast where people are connected to the land and close to God. It isn’t surprising that a large number of clergy in our churches first heard their own call to ministry out in these wild pockets away from city life.
But maybe I have that wrong. Maybe there aren’t pockets of space – maybe there were pockets of people. Like the Greater Silence, these camp environments remind us about the true underpinnings of our world. We are surrounded and upheld, challenged and cradled in the immersive love of God.
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