The famous naturalist John Muir was also very good at work. He managed businesses, ranches and made a good living of it when he was focused. During his life there were several stretches where Muir was entrenched in domestic life, throwing all his energy into providing for his household, which he was very skilled at doing. I’ve read that when he stayed in that state of productivity for too long, it would take a toll on him until his wife would “shoo” him back to the wilderness (perhaps as much for her own sanity!). And, it is through those wilderness experiences where he was the "John Muir" we mostly read about.
I understand that feeling, because I often find myself reaching moments where I need to get away. It’s not because my life at home is miserable, it’s not because my family isn’t totally wonderful, and it isn’t because something awful has happened to me. When I get away, I could go deep into the wilderness for days and see no other human beings, but it doesn’t even have to be that remote. The biggest factor in this desire to have something like wilderness is the way it is set apart. I need to make a break with the routine. I need to reboot the system. I need to shake up my rhythms. I need to acknowledge this new setting is different and special and let it change me.
The fact that for most of my life I’ve worked at camp (which specializes in providing experiences apart) is either perfectly appropriate because I am doing that thing I myself long for - or - ironic, because I feel the need to set myself apart from a place already set apart. Regardless, whenever I return from time spent apart from the regular, I am more the person I want to be. I have a clearer picture of what is important to me. My spirit is kinder and more appreciative. Time being with myself in an extra-ordinary setting guides me to look through a wider lens. The tunnel vision from being in the same routines is shook open, and I’m able to see much more.
A retreat experience for guests, a week of summer camp for youth, and an outdoor school learning session for students all yank participants out of their norms and plop them down into something different. Whenever we intentionally do something out of the ordinary, the next step is to acknowledge that it is special and may carry a meaning bigger than itself. I see groups doing this all the time. They may have come to camp thinking they were just here to learn some songs for the choir, to work on staff dynamics, or to spend some time on the beach. But they leave feeling something different in their spirit, something that will linger even when they get back to the routine.
Whenever I address a retreat group, I share with them that my prayer for them is that, beyond whatever their practical reason for visiting may be or whatever good or bad they are leaving behind from home, I hope spending time here with us in this setting offers a sense of peace and rest from the normal. I share that I hope they return home feeling refreshed and better equipped to go back into their world. Setting time and places apart has an almost magical effect in that regard.
It is one reason we light a candle for worship. When we light a candle it is a signal we give to ourselves where we acknowledge the time is special by doing something special. The act of lighting and the sensory effects received from lighting the candle changes our perception of what is around us. When I light a candle, I pay attention a little bit differently. In moments like these I know I am more likely to feel the presence of God. Regular life can pull us deeper and deeper into something easy to steer and predict. That may be great for productivity, but if it goes on too long without a shake-up, we start to have tunnel vision.
Instead, light the candle, let your wife shoo you off to the Wilderness. We must do this to grow, to live deeply in the spirit. Set time apart. Set places apart. Set ourselves apart. It will open your eyes, and you will see more clearly.