Practicing Community

I have just returned from a short stay at my beloved Camp Wa-Ma-Dee. While there, I read “The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris. Among other things, its about corporate, community living in a Benedictine monastery. At first blush, it seemed to be the opposite of Camp – structured days filled with monastic intentionality do not seem like the best descriptors of lazy summer afternoons where the most pressing decisions are what type of dessert we will have after dinner. But when I step out of its pages and look around me, the similarities are astounding – isolation in community, living with others, contemplation.

Being alone at Camp is a strange exercise in community. If you are willing to see it, you are never alone at Camp. Generations that have lived within these walls never really leave. Their presence is felt in the recipe box, broken bows missing arrows, hand-sewn placemats, and yellowed labels on rickety drawers. Their voices come alive in the pages of old journals:

Their 8-year old self bragging about catching a fish in shaky handwriting and questionable spelling.

Their teenaged self restlessly summarizing an encounter with a bat.

As a 20-something, eager to be back in a place so familiar after a several-year absence.

As an older man sharing camp with his children and grandchildren, discovering the house anew in the eyes of a child.

They are all here, within these walls, rooted in the past, but shaping the future. All that I do and think about in this small bit of earth is connected to them, indebted to what has gone before.

Nothing ever really leaves Camp. Addition is the only math that Camp knows – furniture, paintings, candlesticks – all are added but nothing is removed. A few years ago, it was decided that new dishes were needed for Camp. The old ones were chipped and breaking at an alarming rate. Yet no one felt free to abandon the old ones. So the dinner, salad, and dessert plate that were in the best condition were immortalized and mounted on the wall, next to the dish hutch.

Sharing a house with over 30 people requires you to look after the others’ interests. It forces you out of a me-centered universe and allows you to ask “will others benefit?” and “will it bring others joy?” and “will someone be sad if I replace these dishes?”. In community, you go to bed earlier than you might like so as not to keep others awake. You take shorter showers so the hot water lasts. You inform others where you’re going, because someone else is bound to need something or want to tag along. And you don’t begrudge them that – it’s what’s expected.

And so, in the best possible way, Camp is good for my soul. It’s a chance to practice living in community with people I hardly know and rarely see, but who live in the same world as I do, if only in their memories. History and community root me to this place, reminding me where I come from, who I am today, and all that I have the potential to become within this gentle community.


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