Another youth retreat is over and my thoughts are with the younger members of my parish. I don’t recall being as busy, or at least feeling required to be as busy, when I was younger as they seem to be. Advanced placement classes, sports, jobs, various groups, family things. I wonder, sometimes, when they actually sleep. They have a lot of adult stuff thrown at them at a time when they’re still working out all kinds of big questions and if it was rough for me sometimes, and it was, I can’t imagine how it is now.
So when we have a youth retreat people sometimes ask me what the “program” is, what series of events, lectures, and activities am I using to fill the time. I think they’re surprised when they discover there is very little “program” and wide swaths of open space. I guess the idea is that even these times need to be be shaped by the same form that dance class, school, and everything else in their lives seems to have.
And that’s why I don’t often do it that way. To me these good young people are in a whirlwind of daily activities where well meaning people try to cram as much into their lives as possible and fill their potential college application essays with everything they’re supposed to have. It’s almost a kind of competition to do everything and be everything in the shortest amount of time.
There will be plenty of time for that in life after high school and college. In the not too distant future they will be dancing in a blender filled with work, kids, and everything the mad world can throw at them. They need something else.
They need to be allowed to be kids and not just mini adults. There is a kind of fun, goofy, exuberant, kind of life in children that we shouldn’t try to kill off too soon, if ever. Kids need to play. So do adults, by the way, but that’s another post. Somewhere there has to be a release valve where the pressures to do and be and perform are loosened and they can have a precious space of time to be kids without the adult world making its constant demands on them.
Young people need to learn how to rest. Their adult life can be filled with never ending tasks and if they don’t learn how to rest, the beautiful art of doing nothing, they will, sadly, join the herd of unhappy, harried, people who have gained the whole world but lost their soul. God declared a day of rest so we humans could be more than our work, tending to the garden of our relationships and soul which are, in the long run, exceedingly more important than whatever office we can acquire as we claw our way up the corporate ladder.
They also need to learn to contemplate, to look at the stars, live with the kind of silence that can let them think clearly, and ponder great things in the absence of the world’s noise. At one retreat a group of our young folks spent a few hours out on the dock looking up into the night sky and considering the stars above. The knowledge, the wisdom, gained from that is, in my opinion, as important to the development of true character as what they learn in school. While understanding advanced calculus can be a mark of intelligence, pondering the larger world, the whole of God’s creation and its vastness, is what helps make a person wise.
In the end that’s my only program, to create a space where, in the sometimes crazy world, young people can step back from their world, even for a few hours, and be open to something larger than just the continual tasks of any given day. Freed from the moment I hope they will be open to see eternity because no one can see eternity and not be profoundly changed for the good.