“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting…”
I can think of no better words to capture my experience of leaving FOCUS Summer Projects. And it seems I speak not only for myself but for hundreds who have given a summer to this program. This exchange between Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf as they depart Lothlorien in Tolkien’s first installment of the Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring, never fails to bring an ache to my chest and remind me there is the best kind of danger found in light and joy.
I’ve participated in FOCUS Summer Projects three times now.
First in Estes Park, Colorado in 2018 as a rising senior in college. It was the happiest summer of my life.
The second time was summer 2021 in Boyne Mountain, Michigan, now as a FOCUS missionary. It was the most fruitful summer of my life.
The third, and seemingly last time, was the summer of 2022, once again in Boyne Mountain, Michigan as the FOCUS team director. It was the most extraordinary, ordinary summer of my life. These months have contributed profoundly to the awakening of my soul and have truly hurled me into God’s own divine life.
My summer as a student, now four years ago, remains far and away the closest thing to heaven-on-earth that I have ever experienced. It was the first time in my life I experienced a community where Jesus was the absolute center, and as a result, the community became for me a mini-paradise. It was where I began journaling in prayer. It was where I met several of my best friends.
Enveloped by the Rocky Mountains, I discovered that the beauty of creation is a reflection of the creator. Immersed in a community in love with Mary, I began praying the Rosary and gave Mary permission to be my Mother. Alongside dozens of students and missionaries in relationship with Jesus, I sat at the feet of those around me, listening to them and asking them questions. I was an apprentice in the art of conversation. In short, I was given – in ways I never had been before – opportunities to encounter the Church, Jesus Christ as the head and His members as the body. It was the happiest summer of my life and it sent me forth with my heart ablaze.
Of course I had to return during my term as a FOCUS missionary. I wanted to give back to this program that had given me so much. Summer Projects 2021 was not another happiest summer of my life, but it was the most fruitful. I was faced with new challenges and asked to give of myself in ways I never had been. Never had I felt the burden of leadership in such an acute way.
It felt like everything that went wrong was somehow my fault, or if it wasn’t, I was asked to inform the person whose fault it was of their supposed misstep. I often felt misunderstood and dismissed. Through all of this, though, I discovered much about my strengths and weaknesses, what I stand for, and who I am. I left with a clearer vision and a renewed zeal in living my life for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. Despite the hardships of the summer, I was pained to leave, and I was bawling within 30 minutes of my departure.
I am uniquely grateful for my last Summer Projects experience, for I suspect it foreshadows something of the rhythm of the rest of my life as a Christian disciple. Some days were stressful; I felt overwhelmed and misunderstood. I anxiously scrambled to find the orientation materials or the misplaced tabernacle key, only for them to appear just in time. In the stress, I was forced to admit my need for a savior and acknowledge I cannot proceed to the next moment without Him. Some days were glorious; I was drawn to the heavens by the waves during a Holy Hour on the beach and I experienced the thrill of sprinting down a sand dune straight into the frigid Michigan waters. In these glimpses of glory, I had at the forefront of my mind and burning in my heart the abundant life that Jesus offers me.
But most days were ordinary. They were spent at Mass and in prayer. They were spent at work and with friends. There were moments of excitement and moments of discouragement, moments of confusion and moments of clarity. But mostly there was a peace which comes from knowing my life has purpose and meaning and that I have a God who loves me. It was ordinary in the most extraordinary way.
While inducting U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Bruce Springsteen had this to say:
“A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out. It’s embarrassing to want so much, and to expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens.”
I think this can be said, too, of young people and what we want for our lives. But unfortunately, some of us don’t dare embark upon the adventure. We feel it’s embarrassing to want so much and expect so much from life, or even just from one summer. But what we will never know until we try is that, sometimes, it happens. And it seems at Summer Projects it is not just sometimes, but most times. For me, every time; in different ways, and in ways I did not expect, but it happened every time.
As I was saying my goodbyes in 2022, two students I recruited approached me. They thanked me for my resilient invitation and both agreed: “This is the best thing we have ever done.” It is experiences like Summer Projects which you may never wish to leave. Don’t be surprised if you are tempted, like Peter, to build tents upon this mountain. I was. But we cannot stay. We must come down from the mountain, from this place where we saw, maybe for the first time, our transfigured Lord. We cannot stay because there is a world waiting eagerly to meet those who have lived deeply and are not afraid to share about it. Jesus gives us missions to accomplish in this world, and we must move forward, even away from the glories at the mountaintops, to accomplish them. And that hurts.
Please, do not let the danger of light and joy hold you back. Do not fear the adventure. Don’t allow yourself to settle for too little. You may be on the cusp of the best thing you’ve ever done in your life. May God guide your discernment, grant you peace, and give you the courage to become one who is fully alive.