Summer Vacation: To be Where He Is

The Texas-Louisiana summer vacation took place on June 13-16 in New Braunfels, TX. Among hikes, games, live art shows, and assemblies, the attendees grew in gratefulness for each other and embarked on a journey to discover the source of their friendship.
Marcia Otto

When we are gathered together, there is a possibility that Christ may come into our midst.” This possibility, highlighted by the celebrating priest during the homily of the feast of Pentecost in my parish, was precisely what brought me to this year’s Texas-Louisiana summer vacation. On June 13-16, a group of 32 adults and 30 children and adolescents met in New Braunfels, TX. “My children were looking forward to this vacation the whole year,” said Antonio, a father of four whose family joined the long weekend for the second time this year, expressing a sense of expectation shared by many of us. Our vacation began on Thursday with evening prayers and dinner. Paolo introduced this year's theme, “What can withstand the test of time?” “The first condition to allow us to look at this year’s theme is affection for oneself,” he reminded us, explaining that the following Caligula quotation cited by Fr. Julián Carrón during the Spiritual Exercises served to help him understand this affection:

What happened to me is quite simple; I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. That’s all. … Things as they are, in my opinion, are far from satisfactory. … Really, this world of ours, the scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable. That’s why I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life–something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which isn’t of this world.

“To have affection for oneself,” Paolo continued, “is to desire the moon, the impossible. This is directly connected to the way we stay together these days, to how we pay attention to each other, starting with simple things such as following the daily schedule. This way, when the Mystery reaches us, we won’t miss it.” Paolo’s opening remarks were followed by songs we love to sing together, such as “When the Saints,” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Adults and children were then split into two teams, Oreos and M&Ms, in preparation for the games that would mark the subsequent days. Why Oreos and M&Ms? Because the sandwich cookies and the chocolate candy “are so good that they will certainly withstand the test of time,” said Paolo. “No doubt about it.” It seemed like we were off to a great start.

Friday, after morning prayer, we hiked the scenic Panther Canyon Nature Trail at Landa Park, and ate lunch together. In the afternoon, Oreos and M&Ms teammates of all ages played against each other voraciously. For Alda, a mother of four, spending time together provided an opportunity to bring Christ’s teachings to life. “It is wonderful to participate in a community where everyone is so giving of their time, helpful, and even able to act silly. We were able to create space for our family, a break from our daily busy lives, and live in a special time where we can join our friends.” Don from South Dakota, who was meeting our group for the first time, was also moved by the joy he witnessed during the weekend. “The laughter, the games, and fellowship were remarkable. I was welcomed with arms wide open and I enjoyed every minute of my time.”

Later that evening, the community welcomed Fr. José Medina with a song specially composed for the occasion: a lyrical adaptation of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Recorded by a group of friends days before the vacation, the song was a clear sign of friendship and excitement for Fr. José’s time with the community. The same evening, we gathered to listen Fr. José’s witness. The moment was introduced by “Vuestra soy pues me criasteis,” a song inspired by words from St. Teresa d’Avila. Fully aware of being created and redeemed by her good Lord, the saint asks Him over and over again, “Que mandais hacer de mì?” (what will you do with me?). In his reflection, Fr. José shared moments in his life when he recognized subtle signs of the Divine, glimpses of light that allowed him to continue on his journey. “When one gets stuck in a dark tunnel, there is no point in coming up with a strategy to escape,” he said. “The only thing to do is to look for light and walk towards the direction of the sign.”

I found myself thinking about the previous night, when Paolo reminded us that in order to recognize the signs of the Mystery, a change of heart, a greater attention to ourselves and to each other, is needed. Fr. José proceeded to describe what allows a change to happen. "You can try anything to change yourself, to become a better person, and make little progress. Only a person who is present can truly transform one’s life. The presence of another is what has allowed me to face the deepest questions I’ve had inside of me. Without people, one may hide from the most crucial questions of life,” he said. Reflecting back on his journey, he concluded, “The clear signs of transformation in my life are these. When I was young, I was defined by darkness, by my incapacity to fulfill my desire to transform the world. Everything seemed impossible. Over time, I have come to realize that I am more and more defined by light. When facing moments of darkness, I ask: What are the signs of light? Where are you? What are you asking of me?”

Perhaps unintentionally, Fr. José ended his witness with the very question St. Teresa asked God in her prayer. To me, everything seemed to be connected that evening.

The exceptionality of this time together continued to be evident on Saturday, when we hiked for about three miles through the wildflowers of the Texas Hill country at the Pedernales Falls State Park. We celebrated mass overlooking the beautiful Pedernales falls, and had lunch. In the evening, we were surprised by an incredible performance: Living Art, a live show featuring nine children between 5 and 12 years old who recreated their favorite paintings and sculptures by some of the greatest artists, including Vincent van Gogh, Raphael, Rodin, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Introduced by excerpts from The Religious Sense, the presentation invited the audience to reflect on man’s continuous search for something that withstands the test of time, and the desire to glimpse what lies beyond reality.

In every civilization, art always originates in connection with a desire to see God, because art is "the unnecessary" and if man were defined only by his relationship with appearances, there would be no expression more foolish than art. But on the contrary, man is defined by his search of what lies beyond the sign, and here enters the artistic expression: man is relationship with the infinite through art, the high road of beauty.

The art show was prepared by Kristina with the help of her friends Serena and Lisi. Interestingly, this year’s performance was initiated by Kristina’s daughter Kamilla, a high-school student who has been attending the Communion and Liberation vacation with her family since she was born.

“When I was younger, I remember doing amazing shows at the CL vacation, and it was amazing to be part of something with all the other kids. ... I was amazed by the things Francesca and my mom used to do for us, and how my mom thought of doing Living Art in 2011. I wanted the younger kids to experience this, I wanted them to feel like they are also a huge part in our community. From this experience,” she continued, “I learned that community is such an important thing in our lives. I learned more about the art that I found so beautiful, and how these kids can make it even more beautiful.”

Kamilla’s words shed light on what allows something exceptional to remain: a lasting memory of an “amazing” experience, introduced by someone who loves one’s own heart and destiny. This experience of being loved, as Fr. Carrón often reminds us, has clearly generated a sense of belonging, and sparked the desire to share this exceptionality with others; that is, to plant another seed of something eternal.

We ended the evening with a dance party for children and adults. What a day!

During the assembly on Sunday morning, Paolo asked us a simple question: What have you experienced this weekend? “I was reminded that Another is truly present in my life,” said Serena. “A sense of gratitude, of being loved by a community, which makes me feel like I can love everything and everyone,” said Beth. One by one, people expressed gratitude for the exceptionality of the weekend together. Fr. José pointed out that this sense of gratitude is an important first step. “In order to grown on this journey, it is crucial that we do the work to understand what the origin of this exceptionality is; what makes this place beautiful. This is a question that each one of us must answer for oneself. To know the origin of this experience is what changes one’s life,” he said.

Days have passed, and we have continued to talk about striking moments from the weekend we spent together making room for Another. Last night at School of Community, we reflected on Fr. Giussani’s words in Morality: Memory and Desire: “The key is not in ‘leaning’ on ourselves, but adhering to Something that ‘has appeared in the flesh.’” Suddenly, the concluding words of Fr. José at the vacation came to mind, inviting me again to take the next step, to continuously judge my experience, and, by doing so, to allow myself to adhere to a Presence that came into our midst. “If I truly recognize that this place carries the Divine within, then life becomes extremely simple. I just need to be where He is.”