I was going into my sophomore year of high school when I went to a field hockey sleep away camp. Summer camps, nevermind sleep away camps, were something my siblings and I didn’t do. However, I was permitted to go to this particular camp and went not because I had a burning desire to, but because it was expected of me by my coach.
With each new day, I remember not wanting to be there, mainly because of Samantha Bruni*. Although I was a pretty confident teenager, Samantha was adept at making me feel like something was wrong with me. She loved whispering to other girls while laughing and looking my way. I had no idea what her beef was with me. She was a grade above me and our paths rarely crossed except for being on the same field hockey team together. Although I was friendly enough with my teammates, I didn’t have any close friends there at the camp with me.
I was feeling alone and for the first time in my life, miserably homesick.
When Saturday rolled around, our camp instructors announced there would be a bus available for those of us who wanted to attend Sunday Mass the next morning. We would be going early, prior to our daily practice. I didn’t want to go. To begin with, I despised getting up early and going to church meant I’d have to get up even earlier.
As a family, however, we never ever missed Mass. I went to church mainly because my parents made me go. Catholicism was central in the lives of my Italian-born parents, and their expectation was that it be central in the lives of me and my four siblings as well. But I found the teachings of the church to be complex, obscure, and hard to relate to. Even the mandatory “kid-friendly” weekly religion classes we attended with our peers as children were of no interest to me.
So, there I was–a reluctant and questioning Catholic presented with a choice about going to church. My parents would never know if I didn’t go. I could leave out the part about the camp offering the bus service to us, and it wouldn’t technically be lying. Couldn’t I just miss this week since I was away anyway? In the end, after bargaining with my conscience, it was that pesky Italian-Catholic guilt that propelled me to go.
The girls who got on the bus with me in the morning weren’t from my school so once again, I found myself feeling alone. But as I walked into church that particular Sunday, something unexpected happened. I can’t recall how many of us went. I remember it being just a few. I also can’t recollect what the church looked like. Not one physical detail stands out in my mind.
But to this day, I can remember with total clarity the way I felt upon entering that church.
I felt a warmth. The prayers, the songs, the towering religious idols, the familiarity of it all engulfed me in comfort. I was surrounded by people with whom I shared something powerful in common. Faith. As Mass continued, I felt less alone. It felt like . . . home.
After celebrating Mass, I left church feeling better. I felt oddly renewed and strengthened. Lighter. Ready to start my day, even though I was miles away from home and had to once again face Samantha Bruni. The pit in my stomach was gone.
A few days later, upon returning home from my week at camp, I told my dad how going to Mass that weekend had remarkably healed my homesickness. He smiled, knowingly nodded, and simply said, “You see?”
I did see. I saw for myself the healing power the Lord played in the life of a lonely, 15-year-old girl. To this day, it’s still hard to fully put into words what I experienced that Sunday because it was . . . well, a feeling. It’s something I found myself recently attempting to explain to my own reluctant children as they protested having to go to Mass.
I told them how, as a teenager, I actually felt our Lord’s love when I was far away from home and needed it most. I told them this powerful moment came when I attended Mass at a time when I really did not want to go. Going to church, I tried to explain, is more than monotonous prayers and longwinded priests. I listened to them and empathized with their grievances.
In the end, I wish I could tell you my field hockey camp story moved them to enlightenment and their complaining ceased. Their little minds didn’t seem to grasp what I was trying to get at–that through believing in someone bigger than ourselves, our eyes can be opened, and we can find things like solace and courage. In order for my kids to understand this instilling faith, I’m realizing it is something I have to keep at with them–despite their protests.
Perhaps one day, like me, they will come to understand it . . . when they are far from home and least expect it.
*Fictitious name given to my tormentor, who I’m sure has since changed.