A few weeks ago I led a workshop on camping ministry in the Presbytery of Chicago. It was both a general reflection on the role of camping ministry in the life of the church; a particular discussion of our presbytery’s camp; and, given the likely sale of this camp, an opportunity to envision what camping ministry in our presbytery might look like without owning a camp. (I should note that I am a long time camper, an active user of our presbytery’s camp, and I’ve been involved in the camp committee for about four years.)
The mission statement of our camp refers to it as “a holy place.” This resonates very deeply with people who are passionate about the camp and the ministry that goes on there. Especially now that its sale seems imminent, there is much consternation and grieving over the loss of this holy place.
As part of our discussion, I wanted to probe this notion of holiness a little deeper, because it factors in so significantly in debates about camps. How can we let something so sacred go? Don’t we have an obligation to preserve this sacred piece of God’s creation?
So my first question was, “Is this land more sacred or holy than other land?” Most of the responses I received were affirmative. According to some people, as soon as you step onto the sand of this camp, you feel the presence of God in a special way. I likened this perspective to the tradition of “thin places” in Celtic Christianity. According this this spiritual tradition, there are places in the world where the veil between this world and the next are thin such that there is a greater perception of God’s presence or holiness. In my workshop, I began to refer to this as intrinsic holiness.
In addition to intrinsic holiness, I eventually teased out two other ways that this camp is a holy place. One has to do with the history of what has happened there. The other has to do with the ministry that takes place there.
Out of these three elements of holiness, the intrinsic holiness of the land is the one that is not transferable. The holiness that comes from what happens there can be moved to another place. There was some debate about the history of the camp. Some suggested that if we lose the camp the century or so of history will be lost as well. I disagree. History will always remain; you can’t change history. We may lose our connection to it at that place, but the memory and impact of what happened there over the past 100 years will not just disappear.
Of these three aspects of holiness, the intrinsic holiness is the most difficult to contemplate, especially when it comes to the prospect of losing the camp. To push us to think about this idea a little more, I asked if the land the camp sits on would still be holy if it were sold to a developer and made into beachfront condos. Would you still get that sense of holiness when you step on the sand? To this, I received mostly negative responses. I suggested, then, that the holiness we were talking about is not intrinsic and is more connected to our experience of what happens there and our relationships to it.
In the moment, I thought of a somewhat bizarre counterexample. In the movie Poltergeist, a house is built on the location of an ancient Native American burial ground which was never removed. Paranormal things start to happen because the spiritual power of the place remains regardless of what is built on top of it.
An example closer to our faith tradition is the temple mount in Jerusalem. The rock inside the Dome of the Rock is believed by Muslims to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven during his mystical night journey. According to Jews, this spot is the location of the ancient temple’s Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum which contained the very presence of God. In biblical times, this space was only to be entered by the high priest and only on one occasion during the year, Yom Kippur. Even then, the high priest was at risk of being killed by the power of God’s presence. For many devout Jews to this day, it is a sacred place that should not be touched. It doesn’t matter to them what is currently built there. For them, there is an intrinsic holiness to this place that persists.
So, when it comes to camps, or the location of churches, or the location of anything that people consider holy, what constitutes the holiness of those places? Is there truly an intrinsic holiness, or is it more about what happens there? And if it is the latter, is that holiness transferable to other places?
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