The summer before Davies’s senior year of college, his bishop told him that he was going to work at summer camp. Davies raised a hand to his forehead in salute and said “yessir” without hesitation because he was several steps into The Process to become an Episcopal Priest. The amount of deference he was compelled to show the purple shirt equaled that of what he would show if he had a favor to ask of Don Corleone. This was the summer before the Red Sox won their first world series since 1918; the summer before he started looking over the stacks of polisci books to what his future held; the summer before he got himself into a two-year relationship, which eventually fizzled a few weeks before he planned to ask for her hand in marriage. It was the summer before all the real life stuff that college is so good at ignoring.
Davies had never been to summer camp as a child, so he didn’t know what to expect as a counselor. Until he googled “James Madison Conference Center,” he also didn’t know the camp was named after a bishop rather than a president. Nor did he know where it was located. As it happens, Madison is three miles down River Road from the no Starbucks town of Lucado, West Virginia. Lucado (pronounced LUCK-a-do) is in the Eastern panhandle of the state. Unless you are already in the Eastern panhandle, a geographical idiosyncrasy of West Virginia (called the Appalachian Mountains) means you pretty much have to leave the state to get to Lucado. A piece of the Potomac, in which Davies once learned to fly fish, gives River Road its name. If you are looking for nowhere on the map, three miles down River Road from Lucado, West Virginia is pretty close by.
Despite Madison’s lack of a cell tower within fifty miles, kids came to the camp. Davies could see their love for the place in their wide, expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in meds and decorate nametags. They loved the camp because it was out-of-doors; they loved it because it broke the monotony of what-do-you-want-to-do-I-don’t-know-what-do-you-want-to-do summer vacations; they loved it because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. In his own teenage years, Davies learned that places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Madison is one of them.
Senior high camp was the biggest week of the summer, with over five score hormone bombs flipping off the diving board, sneaking into the woods, crushing on each other, and complaining every day at breakfast because every day unfairly started in the morning. By midweek, Davies was one among many counselors with nerves fraying, ready to throw up his hands. The counselors used a code word to notify each other if they needed to be extracted from the clutches of a clingy/adoring/needy/smelly/nettlesome camper. As the days wore on, alert campers began wondering what “rich brownie candy bars” had to do with a pet rabbit or the athletic physique of that dreamy counselor.
On Friday morning, Davies thought his body was going to go on strike: he had never been so exhausted. But there was just one more day and night and then he could rest, mercifully. The camp shared Eucharist every day, and Friday’s included a special healing service. When the priests asked for counselors to assist with the laying on of hands, Davies volunteered because he had never done it before.
During the opening song, Davies noticed the new campers who were reticent at the beginning of the week singing with everyone else: You are my Prince of Peace and I will live my life for you! With the addition of those new voices, the camp’s volume went from ten to eleven. The peace took just as long as it usually did because, as usual, everyone tried to hug everyone else. They shared Communion, and then the campers settled into their seats for the laying on of hands. The usually boisterous crowd was quiet all of a sudden as if the mystery of God hit them all at once with the least awkward silence imaginable.
Davies walked to the back of the chapel with his priest friend Rick and a pair of sisters, Jennifer and Elise. The first camper stood up and turned towards them. Davies looked at his hands. He turned them over, saw the lines and the fingerprints and the dirt under his nails. What are these supposed to do?
The camper sat in a metal folding chair, and Rick leaned close. The boy had a pimple on his lip, which quivered as he spoke in a stage whisper: “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” Davies kept looking at his hands, his inadequate hands. Rick motioned for Davies and the sisters to touch the camper’s shoulders. Davies reached out one hand tentatively, lightly, like he was testing a bruise on the boy’s arm. Rick touched oil to the camper’s forehead and prayed. Davies found himself mouthing words that sprang unbidden to his lips.
Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.
This became his breath prayer. Over and over again, he breathed these words in and out. God, use my inadequate hands for healing, use my inadequate heart for loving, he prayed. Without thinking of the consequences, he prayed with fervor he didn’t know he possessed: Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken campers who keep coming and coming.
Their need for healing was so great. Who knew such young people could feel such pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, feeling the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss.
Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.
Davies kept whispering this prayer with his fingertips and his breath. He kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill him so the campers could know the healing presence of God. The last camper stood up from the metal folding chair. Davies had forgotten his own exhaustion in the half hour of laying his hands on the campers. They trickled out of the chapel on the way to the dining hall. The counselors and priests who had participated in the healing gathered around the altar for a final prayer. They held hands and prayed. As they let go of each other, Davies felt that little squeeze of his hands from friends on either side.
He backed away from the altar. A tear rolled down his cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, Davies was crying. He sat down in the second pew. Just as suddenly, he was no longer crying—he was bawling, blubbering, sniffling, choking. He had no restraint. His chest heaved, his cheeks reddened. For twenty minutes, he sat with his head in his hands, weeping. As he wept, he felt in his gut and in the soles of his feet the truth: God, you granted me exactly what I asked for—an excess of Spirit, an overflowing of your healing power. The fat tears forming a puddle at his feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of him. His ragged breath was the Holy Spirit releasing from his body, bringing him back to a level of Spirit that is safe for one human being.
As Davies began to calm, he noticed a hand on his back. Elise had stayed behind and sat silently with him. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand him a tissue. She had let Davies weep, alone and yet not alone.
He rose to his feet, shakily, drained and full at the same time. They walked across the field to the dining hall. The campers had gone back to their lodges for rest time, and all the grilled cheese was gone. But one of the ladies at the dining hall saw them, fired the griddle back up, and cooked them a pair of sandwiches each. Elise thanked her for this small act of kindness and slid a plate across the table to Davies.
He munched on his grilled cheese for a few minutes. His head pounded with the exertion from crying, but a new feeling a peace was emerging between the throbs. He looked down at his hands again, sticky now with molten cheese. These hands, God? These inadequate hands?
* This is the first story in a series I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. Gordon Atkinson’s character “Foy” gave me the inspiration to begin my own series of autobiographical fiction. If you haven’t read the “Foy Stories,” read them because they are incredible. Since Gordon Atkinson originally referred to “Foy Davis” as simply “Foy,” I didn’t realize the similarity of names until I wrote this footnote! (I hope you don’t mind, Gordon!)