Summer Camp

I have, apparently, too much leftover issues and complexities of camps past to see very clearly what’s actually at issue at a current summer camp. I have in the back of my mind, and not uncommonly in the forefront, are a lot of questions of temperament and of exhortations to “re-commit your life to Christ,” accompanied by an emotional “life changing experience” and so on. In addition I also have a lot of junk concerning whether I do indeed like art, and teaching, and so on.

As I say, having all this in my mind makes it difficult sometimes to see what’s actually going on, because by default I spend a lot of mental energy confronting the ghosts of summer camps past. I did a lot of that this year, which is too bad, since it was quite an interesting camp in its own right. If I weren’t thinking so much about teaching, introversion, Georgia, Ev. Free camps, forced gaiety, loud, messy games, and all the other camp junk I have collected over the years, there are two things that stood out the most from this camp — icons, and something I don’t have a name for yet. The thing I don’t have a name for was the way in which a little group of teens and staff would always stay in the chapel chanting for ten or fifteen minutes after the services, just because; and the way that a couple of teens stayed and worked on icons through all the morning classes, and then came back later in the afternoon; and how they would process a little group of special icons (prints, but which the kids and Presbytera Maria said were myrrhing), singing “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy immortal, have mercy on us!” to and from chapel twice a day — I liked, in other words, that people quite obviously had some other and more rooted connection to Christ and to Orthodoxy than what was to be gotten from the camp itself or from the official program. On young woman sang a lovely hymn to the Theotokos that she had learned from some nuns she had lived with; they had written it and taught it to her. One evening when most everyone had left the chapel some people stayed having their crosses blessed over a cross that Fr Nicholas had brought, and chanting; a young man said a prayer in Greek that he had learned from his family, and then translated it; he also painted an icon based not on our templates, but on a church on the island his family had come from, with the Theotokos and crabs. The first night of nighttime “teen talk,” after talking about all the disasters in the world for a bit, some of the teens started telling stories about miracles they had witnessed. A piece of the true cross visited Arizona in the care of a monk from Greece; a young man’s eyes were healed; a girl’s father found out that he had a dangerous heart condition; a young woman’s depression was lifted along with her mother, and so on. People said: their icons and crosses were oozing (well, streaming, but very slowly — streaming sounds better) myrrh.

Orthodox people like icons. They (we?) really, really like icons. Icons are very important — they are “windows to heaven,” and in them we proclaim that God has indeed become Man; with a real body, depictable; and divine energy really does indwell matter, most especially the bodies of the saints, and even things that they touched and blessed; even their images (even prints of their images).

I was raised Protestant, and with that comes a certain habitual indifference to matter. I am a lot more sensitive to internal states, doctrinal questions, and exhortations to change my life than I am to icons — or holy water, anointing oil, and blessed materials in general. If an icon started gushing scented myrrh right in front of me, but nothing else happened, I don’t know that I would do anything except stare at it and think: “how lovely; thank you, God!” I feel toward miraculous icons rather as I feel toward quantum mechanics: it’s strange and wonderful, and I suppose that icons can be miracle working as I believe that very small particles can effect one another from a distance without following the ordinary laws of causality, but I have no personal connection to it, nor do I understand quite what it means.

Crafts went fairly well, though I mixed the dye rather too weak, the wind kept blowing our stuff about, and we were rather more busy than I remembered. We ended up not having time for some of the ideas I had thought of, and we all tie-dyed a shirt, painted an icon, and most kids made a nail cross, bound with wire. A lot of the girls made friendship bracelets as well. For next year we would like to do the shirts again (I guess — it’s tradition) with rather stronger dye, some kind of prayer book, and an icon bracelet. I wish that I were more interested in these projects. They’re solid, decent, Christian sorts of crafts. A number of the campers enjoy and do a good job on them.

I suspect that if I understood the icons better I might understand the crafts better (obviously this year, since we were writing our own icons), because in general I’m a lot quicker with ideas than things. Not making things — I’m good at making things — but having some feeling for why a thing should be made at all. In any event, I may be a bit burnt out from the past year of teaching. As before, it’s difficult to see very well what’s actually going on with all this as distraction, and is therefore difficult to write an essay about camp without making it really an essay about my own misunderstanding, just as I couldn’t write an essay about Camp Saint Nicholas, where I was a counselor for a month the year before last, without it becoming an essay about trying to function as a peppy extrovert and doing very poorly at it.


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