Monday, July 2, 2012

In The Woods

There are services pretty much every day at Camp Coleman. On Mondays and Thursdays, they are held in the morning, just after breakfast. Today, the camp was divided up by unit for "kavannah" service - these are usually very informal services, not relying on fixed prayers or anything standard. They're often more of a "spiritual time," as opposed to formal services.

I'm attached to the Solelim unit, which is made up of rising 6th graders. The girls are off camp, so it was just the boys. The counselor in charge wanted to do a slow, mindful walk through the woods - a chance to really enjoy nature, and to maybe talk a bit about what is spiritual about the natural world.

I was thrilled - I'm a firm believer that nature is a great source of spirituality, and this morning, thanks to some good thunderstorms last night, it was actually pleasant outside. But, I got a bit discouraged when I saw the campers gathering - I tend to remember kids as older than they really are, and seeing a few dozen actual 6th grade boys grouping up, running around and telling jokes (many of which involved words like "fart," of course) didn't exactly fill me with confidence in the efficacy of a quiet, contemplative time.

We started out as best we could - the counselor explained what we were doing and why, and just after we got into the woods, I told one of my favorite quick stories - about how the woods can change us. And then, we were off - traipsing through the woods, trying to get the kids to quiet down and pay attention. Trying to get 20 or 30 11 year old, video-game obsessed, fart-joke-telling, "I'd rather be playing sports" boys to quiet down. And pay attention.

And then, the most amazing thing happened.

They did.

A bit at first, but more and more as we went into the woods, the boys started to quiet down. And look. And listen. We had asked them to quietly ask for our attention when they found something wonderful. One called us all over to look at a yellow lady bug ("the rarest kind of ladybug!" he assured us). One found a bowl-shaped spiderweb which had collected dew, and another noticed that, on the pine branches, every needle had a drop of dew on the end. We discovered together that, if you were very gentle, you could touch one with the tip of your finger, and the droplet would transfer to you. A tiny gift from the branch, we agreed.

At one point, a counselor and I noticed that almost every kid was huddled in a group, utterly and completely fascinated by something that a unit-mate had found - a bright green beetle, some decomposing wood. They wanted to talk about what they found beautiful (and these young, often cynical boys were willing to use the word "beautiful," and no one snickered). They looked at the light pouring in from between the trees. They squatted down in silence, and listened as a single bird sang. They talked a bit about God. About how they felt in nature. About science.

I will gladly admit - it quite literally brought a tear to my eye. It was beautiful.

We were late to our next activity (just a bit!), because it was so hard to get some of these kids to walk without stopping to notice another spiderweb, or a tree pocked with holes from boring insects. And maybe, just maybe, that counselor and I weren't so eager to speed them along.

There really is something about being out in a beautiful, natural spot. About thinking about God while staring right at Him. About paying attention to the smallest detail, while realizing that there are no small details. Heschel teaches that anyone can experience spiritual uplift while standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. It takes practice, though, to realize that all of that, everything contained in that moment, can be found in an average leaf, or a drop of water, clinging to a needle.

Oh, and the story?

When he was a child, Reb Nahman (a great spiritual master) used to sneak away during services. His father, a Rabbi himself, decided to follow him one day, and found that Nahman was heading out of town, into the woods. When he got deep enough in, he would recite the service, exactly as it was being recited in synagogue.

"Nahman," his father gently said. "You don't need to come into the woods to pray to God. God is the same in synagogue as here in the woods."

"Father," he replied. "I know that God is the same in the synagogue as in the woods.

"I'm not."


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