Lower Midwest Vacation: To Climb the Stairs

At the 2019 Lower Midwest summer vacation in the United States, its participants hiked, sang, prayed, and delved into the theme, "Our hope lies in something unforeseen."
Meghan Berneking

In July, friends from Indiana, Chicago, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan gathered in Brown County State Park in Southern Indiana for our annual summer vacation. The theme, “Our hope lies in something unforeseen,” shaped each of our experiences and opened our horizons to how these days might change our lives.

For many, the experience of work—in our jobs, in our homes, in relationships, etc.—seems like an obstacle to this “unforeseen hope.” Two presentations addressed the “problem” of work in very concrete ways and ultimately demonstrated how it is possible for faith to become culture. Erica gave a witness on how reading and discussing The Risk of Education with other teachers and parents at the school where she teaches not only sparked new dialogue within the school, but also among her friends in the movement who continue to learn what it means to educate. The work also changed the way she faced her students, one in particular with behavioral issues whose presence grew to become the daily prayer she needed to become more herself. The next night, four friends shared their experiences with the exhibit on the art of Jean-Francois Millet (which was presented at the New York Encounter in 2015 as well as on two occasions in Evansville, Indiana, last year), which presents the challenges and beauty of labor through this artist’s eyes.

The theme of work particularly struck Jimmy, who was attending his first CL Vacation: “I was struck most of all by how seriously (and yet still joyfully) the members of CL that I encountered take their work, faith, family life, and their community. Work is not simply something to plod through, but a way to fulfill our need to give ourselves and our time back to God. They are putting this same level of 'work' and intentionality into other aspects of their lives. I have encountered no other community like this in my life, whether at a parish or lay organization. The vacation left me inspired to lead my family towards holiness with a renewed sense of purpose and to make my work a daily prayer that I can be proud of.

Particular attention was given this year to the pre-teens and teens, as they are a growing group in our region. They were invited to participate in several proposals during the free time of the vacation including watching a movie together, a dawn hike, and late-night stargazing. These proposals opened the possibility to continue a different way of living after the vacation ended. “During these activities, I got to know the other teens and they got to know me. It was great to have a proposal particular for us. In four days, we got to have our own experience, and we will bring it with us through the year, waiting for the next vacation,” said thirteen-year-old Anna.

The adults involved in organizing these proposals also found themselves changed, as did the parents who saw a change in their children. “I was asked to lead a hike for the teens on the final morning of the vacation,” said Mark. “I had scouted the route the day before, but when I woke up, I was filled with an uncharacteristic anxiety. ‘What if it isn’t beautiful enough? What if it’s too challenging, or too boring? What if it’s a huge disappointment?’ When we got to the trailhead and I started to propose that we begin the hike in silence, I saw in front of me that handful of teenagers, who had woken up early, some even before their parents, to be there. Why had they come? In their faces I saw that they had come filled with expectation (Why else would a teenager wake up so early?), and that they were there because they trusted what was being proposed to them. But who did they trust? They didn’t trust me to plan a good hike; half of them barely knew my name. They trusted in the life they had seen during those days of vacation; they trusted in the Presence they found there, and they came to the hike anticipating it again. Surprisingly, I forgot all my worries and followed those kids. Their trust became my trust, and I walked filled with their same desire. I was leading the hike, walking in front, but I was following them, looking at the world with their expectant eyes that had looked at me at the trailhead. I looked at everything we saw filled with wonder and gratitude, and I left in awe of this friendship, where even a teenager frees me from myself and shows me again that unforeseeable exceptionality towards which I want to orient my whole life.”

For the parents, it was not enough that their children were kept engaged and happy during the time together. Several parents of children of all ages shared at the final assembly that the joy their children experienced in these days together sparked their own desire.

“My children were fully engaged in everything proposed to them. Wonderful! So why do I feel like I’m missing something?” said Federica. “One afternoon, with the younger children, I watched the movie The Miracle of Marcellino. Marcellino is struggling with a great desire to have a friend and to know his mom. When a friar tells him not to go up the stairs, he can’t resist the temptation to go upstairs, but eventually it is there that he meets Jesus. After the movie a few questions were proposed to the children, including ‘What’s your greatest desire?’ One of the children answered, ‘I want to climb the stairs!’ The image in this answer fully describes what I’m longing for. I want to be as happy as I saw my children at the vacation—fully adhering to a Presence that attracts me, which I can’t resist. After many years in the movement and many vacations, I’m not ‘all set.’ I’m 47 years old and I still want to climb the stairs!

The last night was spent singing all together. The carefully curated song list led us on a journey from rambunctious gathering, to desire and sometimes painful longing, to an unforeseen Presence that fills our longing even now. The night served as a microcosm of a lived faith.

The last morning, Mark affirmed at the assembly that although a family vacation in Southern Indiana is an unlikely place where he would choose to spend his free time, he can again verify that this is the place where he discovers how to live everything in his life. “As I lived each hour of the vacation, I found myself happy, joyful, working without the usual weariness I feel after a long day at my job. In the end, the judgment was simple: Yes, I’m really happy here. Or, as I texted one of my friends back home, ‘Here I’ve found the best thing in the whole world, which is life lived oriented toward Beauty, Love, Wonder, toward Christ present in the life we share.’”

This beauty does not end with the last day of the vacation. The challenge we are left with is how what we have experienced launches each one of us with renewed openness and desire for totality in our daily work, family life, and life with friends--in the unexpected and most proximal circumstances where we are called to live every day.