God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. – Gen. 1:16-18a
Anxiously I patted around the edge of the tent, looking for my flashlight to take a midnight walk. Finally finding it stuck under the foot of the sleeping bag, I crawled carefully over my husband, trying not to wake him. Once out of the tent I realized with a start that I had no need of a light, there was just enough moonlight to let me safely thread my way through the tents and gently glowing fire pits dotting the campsite.
I just spent eight days camping in the redwood groves of Northern California with some of the more adventuresome members of my family – 17 of us ranging in age from 7 months to 77 years old. We slept on the ground, hauled water from the pump and cooked all our meals over an open fire.
With no cell phone service, no Internet and no electricity many of the things we take for granted, from a quick Google search to find out what might take the banana slug slime off my 5-year-old nephew to hot water to lights were not as easy to manage. But, no one seemed to mind; there was enough to do what we needed.
In the summer of 1998, Pope John Paul II, himself an enthusiastic camper, reflected, “In the era of technology our life risks becoming always more anonymous and merely a function of the production process. In this way, man becomes incapable of enjoying the beauties of the Creator and to see in them the reflection of the face of God.”
Stripped of technology, our lives ran on very different clocks while camping. We woke when the sun peeked over the cliffs and towering redwoods. The kids’ bedtimes were determined not so much by their parents but by the lights that “governed the day and the night” (and how far they’d hiked that day). I re-discovered long forgotten aspects of God’s “lesser light.” The moon ceased to be merely a bauble – albeit a beautiful one – hung in the sky, and as it lit my midnight excursion, I could see again in its gentle light God’s care for me.
As the days passed, I grew more aware of how much of modern life creates a buffer between God’s created world and me – and as a result, blurs nature’s reflection of God’s face.
Cooking at home offers me the illusion of ease and control. Four minutes after I hit the switch on my teakettle, it is merrily bubbling away. Camping, I put a heavy pot of icy water drawn from the pump on the fire. Twenty minutes – or more – later I might have boiling water that tastes ever so faintly of the smoke from the wood over which it was heated.
In Sollicitudo rei socialis Pope John Paul II reminded us “we must never lose sight of that dimension which is in the specific nature of man, who has been created by God in His image and likeness. It is a bodily and a spiritual nature, symbolized … by the two elements: the earth, from which God forms man’s body, and the breath of life which He breathes into man’s nostrils.” Cooking over that unpredictable open fire, drinking my morning cup of tea tasting of the wood and the earth, was to recall how and what I am created to be.
Roughing it with God these last days has sharpened my vision of His face in creation. As heavenly as a hot shower felt at the end of the trip, I already miss this unmediated time with God. I come back wondering what modern layers I can on occasion do without, that I may better know that I am dust, given life by His breath alone.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.