Freedom in the Forest

The view from Black Balsam Knob, a mountain not from from the camps. Via Wikimedia.

As I write this, I am in one of my favorite places in the world: Camps Kahdalea & Chosatonga.  It’s a pair of superb wilderness camps nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Parkway at the edge of the Pisgah National Forest.  Staffed by an exceptional group of counselors, these camps take seriously the modifier “wilderness.”  They expose youth aged 8-18 to a wide array of adventurous activities from white-water kayaking to rock-climbing to spelunking.  And they have the whole array of just about any activity you’d expect to find at an outdoor youth camp, but that’s not the only reason I love the place.  It’s their communion, their sense of encounter, their authenticity, and of course, their faith.

Kahdalea and Chosatonga are truly wilderness camps, but they are also authentically Christian.  Not in a stuffy, preachy sort of way but in a I-try-to-love-you-like-Jesus-while-we-do-fun-stuff-together sort of way.  It’s something intangible: a kind of attitude, a subtle aroma of faith that permeates the place without overwhelming you.  Yes, there are some daily reflections, a weekly chapel visit (and Mass for the Catholics), but that’s not why people are there.  They are Christians enjoying the beauty of creation and the company they share.  And their subtle I’m-okay-with-your-freedom approach has been quite fruitful.  Vocations, lots of them.  I know of 28 men who’ve attended the camp or worked there that now serve as priests all over the country.  Some of the girls have joined religious life and conversions are not terribly uncommon.  All of them will tell you that time at camp was instrumental in finding God’s plan for them and I will be the first to say that exact thing.  A summer working at this place played an integral role in my journey to the altar of God, and I thank God for it often.

But why am I telling you all of this?

I’ll give you two reasons: First of all, because people need to know that genuine Christian community does exist in our increasingly secular society.  Secondly, because the freedom needed for that community is increasingly in danger of being taken away.  Today begins the annual Fortnight for Freedom started by our Bishops in the United States.  It is a prayer and information based campaign to encourage Catholics and all people of faith to better understand, speak about, and defend religious freedom in our country.

Real Religion

The owners of the camp and much of the staff are practicing Catholics who genuinely love the children they serve.  Many others are Christians who take their faith seriously.  This is the foundation that makes the place authentic: the people.  Not systems, not rules, not logos or branding, but the people.  The community is one of faith because the people in it each commit to what they believe.  Sacrifice, prayer, a genuine interest in the good of other people – you will find these and many other virtues among these people.  They are by no means perfect, but they are intentional about their faith and their mission.  The camp itself is intentional about the mission and Christian principles guide the expectations for staff and campers alike.

The camp is also somewhat isolated.  While I have not read the Benedict Option and can in no way speak with authority about it, I do know that it stresses the idea of withdrawal from a decaying society.  I can speak to that principle and I will say that some degree of withdrawal is essential to the success of this camp.  No cell phones, very little radio music (but plenty of singing!), no television, rarely a movie, and physical distance all contribute to the honesty of calling it a wilderness camp.

“St. Jerome in the Wilderness” by Paris Bordone, via wikimedia.

That separation is also personal.  Each of the people involved, camper and counselor alike, are separating themselves, at least temporarily, from some level of toxicity to which they are exposed in our culture.  Broken families, work without much meaning, morally bankrupt schools – these and other realities permeate our culture and we fool ourselves if we think that always being around them is a wise way to raise a family or deepen our faith (or evangelize!).  We need a certain kind of spiritual safety, a place where the faith is not only tolerated, but embraced and written into the very bones of the community.

The formation of human souls is not a one dimensional reality and it does not come down to a single individual’s choice.  We are inevitably a product of our environment in some way.  But, we human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, are imbued with the possibility of choosing our environment, developing it, co-creating it.  With very few exceptions, the great saints spent some significant time in a holy environment, often involving a community built with Christian principles.  Our country, our culture at large is not that kind of environment.  If we do not consciously choose to find, foster, or form that environment, we will continue to lose our children, our friends and family, and possibly our own souls to a hostile secular worldview.

These camps provide that kind of environment 3 or 5 weeks at a time and they do it deliberately.  For some, a few summers of that are enough to awaken them to a greater reality, to save them from a meaningless life of selfish materialistic consumerism, the “throwaway culture” Pope Francis so often criticizes.  For others, the merits of their time here cannot outweigh the burdens that sinful society has given them.  And there are those for whom it might have been enough, but in their freedom they choose to reject or ignore the gifts offered them.

But some don’t even have the freedom

Without an authentic experience of love, how can someone know to choose love?  Without knowing that some one is simply glad that you exist, how can you make an informed choice?  Without the requisite human formation to even know what freedom is, how can we expect people, children especially, to rise up to their potential?

That is what’s at stake in our fight for religious freedom.  Not just freedom to pray, but the freedom to teach people what freedom even is.  Not just to teach them about the freedom to choose what is good, but to give them the possibility, the formation of their humanity needed to actually be free: freedom from addiction, from deception, from sin.  In the case of the camps, the friendly low-pressure exposure to the faith could be seen as problematic.  Heck, even the distinction between boys’ camp and girls’ camp is liable to draw controversy in certain conditions.

This is about more than a label or the ability to go to Church.  Our Catholic Faith ought to run to our very core so that even our recreation, our climbing of mountains and hiking of trails gives off the fragrance of Christ.  When the world… when our country seeks to restrict our freedom of religion, it’s not just our Sundays they are undermining.  It is our recreation, our communities, our very selves.

So Don’t Just Let it Happen!

  • Pray, fast, and give alms during the fortnight: offer these for religious freedom and for the grace to make the best use of the freedom we still have.
  • Check out what the USCCB offers for this time and research what’s being done in your own diocese.
  • Come work for the camp, send your children to the camp, or help provide for other children to go to the camp.  If you don’t know of children to support, contact the camp directly and tell them I sent you.  One way or another, your support will get to people who need it.
  • Kahdalea and Chosatonga may be the best, but they are not the only communities that achieve this balance of faith, freedom and fun.  Find and support others like them.
  • Pray and listen for God’s guidance in forming authentic Christian community in other places.  Schools, groups within the parish, informal groups of families – many of these are not authentic yet, but your effort could help to change that.

Posted by Fr. Albert

Fr. Alexander Albert is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained a priest in June of 2016 after receiving an M.A. in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He currently serves as the Parochial Vicar for St. Peter's Catholic Church in New Iberia, Louisiana. He takes an interest in Spiritual Theology and has his own blog, Albert The Ordinary, where he posts homilies and analyzes movies.