I attended a private Catholic high school. Once per year, in an environment similar to this, we would have “revivals” to enrich our spiritual lives. My senior year was most impressive, as this “Christian Awakening Retreat” was a three-day event. I went to Jesus Camp.
I’d like to share with you my experience at the Christian Awakening Retreat. First, the retreat was shrouded in secrecy. The entire senior class could not all participate at once, so sections went at a time. Although the participants would come back obviously rattled, not one would speak of the activities. All was left to rumor and speculation, which at a high school can produce very imaginative images indeed. The only real evidence that one could see was the Jerusalem Cross everyone wore after going to the retreat. This must be something of great importance. I still have mine. I’ll describe it more later.
One main difference in my retreat and this one was we did not speak in tongues. It was an emotional rollercoaster, though. I remember the first thing we did was sit down at a bunch of tables. A box of Kleenex tissues had been placed on each one. We all felt this was a bit weird. One by one, a letter from our parents was read. Each letter told the child how much his/her parents loved him/her, and how proud they were of their child’s development as a Christian. Each letter left the recipient in tears. Many cried just listening to the outpour of love from these letters. I admit I was moved by my own, for a moment. Later that evening I felt the whole thing had been a bit too orchestrated, but I dismissed this, and looked forward to the next day’s events.
I should point out that one of the main themes of all these retreats was, “You get out of this what you put into it.” I was determined to get the most out of this; after all, participation had cost a few hundred dollars. I really wanted this to get my money’s worth, and I felt this was a great opportunity to ask some of those bugging questions I had about my faith. I went in knowing this was going to make or break me as a Christian. If only I had known how right I was.
The next day was rather uneventful, except for one of my teacher’s story about his son. His son was a few years behind me, but I knew how he was. He was hard to miss. I wasn’t aware of the circumstances of his birth, and his father described it in grueling detail. He had been born with serious defects. At birth, he had no lower jaw, and his face seemed to just disappear beneath his nose. It required numerous surgeries, all performed while he was an infant, just to get him to look human. All these procedures had left him looking a bit different, so you can see why I’d be able to pick him out of a crowd. But I knew he was a good kid, even if we never spoke.
What grabbed me most about this teacher’s story was how the birth of his son threw him for a spiritual loop. He admitted to leaving Catholicism for a while to explore other options. He explained that after looking into other faiths, he found Catholicism to be the best choice for him. This was exactly what I wanted to hear. Someone had taken the journey I was about to begin and had some to the conclusion I thought I wanted. This was very encouraging.
That evening was also an opportunity for Reconciliation, or Confession. For those of you who don’t know, Catholics believe that not only does God have the authority to forgive sins, so too do priests. To have your sins forgiven by a priest is called Reconciliation, or Confession. You tell the priest all your sins, and they are forgiven. Sometimes, a penance is required. This is some prayer or action that you must do to atone for your sins. Something like, “Say five ‘Our Fathers’ and ten ‘Hail Marys’” and you’re golden again. You may know that the priest cannot talk about what you confess. To do so would be a violation of their sacred vows. And we all know how seriously all priests take those vows.
Fresh from the story of how one of my teachers had left the faith only to return, I asked the priest in Confession about some of my problems with faith. The priest told me that these questions came from Satan, and that I should simply pray that God would give me the strength to fight them. Normally, Confession left me with a sense of peace; this time it left me with a sense that I would not be returning to the Confessional. I was right. I never even completed my penance.
On the final evening, we received those Jerusalem Crosses. This is a cross with four smaller crosses in each corner. This cross was worn in the Crusades. It symbolizes the spread of Christianity to the four corners of the earth. My retreat leaders, however, encouraged each of us to find our own meaning for our cross. When I spoke with friends about what meaning they had assigned to their cross, I was stunned to find that without consoling each other, we had all assigned the same meaning: this cross represented me, and all that I am and all I ever will be. I realized that the cross was insignificant. I was already me.
I left the retreat knowing this was to be the last big Christian thing I would ever do. I think even my parents understood this. When everyone else ran bawling to their parents, I kept thinking, “But parents are SUPPOSED to love their kids. This shouldn’t be some great revelation. Why is everyone acting like this has changed something?” Clearly, I “didn’t get it”.
Today, I look back on this Christian Awakening Retreat as a truly awakening retreat. It was here that I realized I would never accept this faith as my own. So while Jesus Camp is revolting, keep in mind that I went there, and began revolting.