Tuesday, June 29, 2010
On Spiritual Gatherings, Retreats, Conferences, and Camps
I've been reflecting recently on the nature of conferences, gatherings, retreats, or camps. Roughly a month ago I returned from the Young Adult Friend 2010 conference held in Wichita, Kansas. In a month, I will attend Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Annual Session for the first time ever. For non-Quaker readers, a monthly meeting is where one attends worship every Sunday. A yearly meeting, by contrast, is a regional grouping of monthly meetings.
For me, at least, attending such functions almost always proves fruitful in all sorts of ways. Making deep, emotionally satisfying connections with other Friends is always welcome. After arriving home, I feel charged and driven, even ready to run through a brick wall if necessary to accomplish the aims and goals I have set for myself. Such spaces are a bit of a sustained pep talk of sorts, a call to action, if you will.
The YAF 2010 gathering in Kansas provided me the ability to experience a near-Utopia for three powerful days. The intensity, the fellowship, and the presence of the Spirit were present in proportions I have experienced very rarely in my own life. God's presence in my life was no abstraction, nor something frustratingly imperceptible. In my exuberance and joy, I expressed these feelings to a Friend, and his response was cautious and measured. He told me that any function this concentrated could never be replicated in day-to-day life and that, furthermore, we should take what we learned and apply it to our monthly meetings and be sure not to leave it all there.
It is certainly true that many Young Friends and Young Adult Friends live only for conferences and gatherings while ignoring their monthly meetings. Even so, one cannot discount the powerful and renewing experiences produced there. They may be only for the short-term, but even something so time-limited I believe needs to be enjoyed without caveats. Our much less exciting daily lives will always be there upon our return. Why not enjoy oneself as best one can?
Many groups, movements, or organizations, be they religious or secular put on some version or another of a gathering or conference. Those fortunate enough to attend find themselves riding a high of good feeling. With it comes a hard-charging idealism and restored sense of focus. This degree of energy or purpose may not be sustainable, but one cannot discount the impression they make upon those in attendance. I might not be able to remember where my cars keys are on my way out the door, but I will never forget the connections I made, the people I met, and the shared experience of togetherness produced as we shared space with one another. Those who I have spoken to upon return feel relaxed and at peace, as though they had been on a leisurely and badly needed vacation.
I met a Young Adult Friend while in Kansas who is part of a small intentional community under the care of her monthly meeting. I mention this to underscore a very common current among many participants; they feel as though they are in a place where they are finally understood, loved, accepted, and taken seriously. They have, in effect, found their tribe and their people, and are reluctant to part ways with them. Several of us have at least contemplated a desire to live together away from the demoralizing, hurtful aspects of the world, and though one might easily assign that to wishful thinking, it has nonetheless crossed the minds of more than a few.
As tempting as this is, I do know that there's a lot of hard work to be done out in the greater world. My hope upon leaving any gathering this profound and moving is that I might not see the experiences of true community slip away from me like sand in an hour glass, a little bit at a time. I may not be able to grasp hold to all of it, but my fond memories remain, and they persist. Science has taught us that the more intense an experience, the more likely it is for it to be indelibly burned into our memories. No matter what might face me, if I need to be reminded of what really matters in life, all I need to do is invoke those times. Some of what I experienced might be short-lived, but I take back much of value with me. If these gatherings are artificial and unreal, then here's to artifice and unreality!