Taking a LARP of Faith: Building Up Boys for the Kingdom

Taking a LARP of Faith: Building Up Boys for the Kingdom

LARP: Live Action Role Playing. A type of interactive role-playing activity in which participants portray characters through physical action, often in costume with props.

“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’… by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”- C.S. Lewis

A group of young squires, aspiring knights, gathered and sprawled in the thick grass on a hillside dotted with poplars, fireweed and blue aster. In the midst of the chittering of birds flitting through summer leaves, Commander Hiraeth rose and positioned himself before the boys at the base of a small group of trees. Behind him the terrain sloped down to an icy cold glacial river, a silver gash that split the valley into two verdant wooded climbs.

“My father always told me,” he began, hand resting on the head of his axe set neatly in a thick leather belt about his waist, “these three things: ‘Keep your eyes up, ears open, and mouth shut.’ I’ve come to learn that it was not only wisdom for a man in battle, or on a scouting mission. But the man with eyes up and ears open, the quiet man who is attentive, is the man who’ll always encounter the Voice of the King.”

Hiraeth looked up at the mosaic of dappled light in the trees, like green tongues of fire rippling in the wind. “Remember we men are not only here for battle. We are in fact made for Beauty. And this is what we fight for.”

Young eyes looked up. Young hearts drank deep and were silent. And the summer wind washed over them like a wave.

This is Arcātheos. This was early August, and this is where I took my 10-year-old son for an immersive summer camp like none I’ve ever experienced. And I was privileged to play Commander Hiraeth! It’s a Welsh word I chose that means “longing” as if for home or a place of rest. I led missions, I acted out epic scenes and gave talks to the men and young men attending the camp during the week on masculinity, fatherhood, rightly ordered passion and purity of heart. And yes, dressed in full medieval gear, replete with cloak, leather tunic, axe and shield! I had more fun than my son. Easily. 

The camp is nestled on 70 acres of pristine wilderness in Alberta, Canada. The week we attended was made up of over 100 boys from 8 to 18. Dads and young men were present as well, each of us leaning on and learning from one another as we led our boys into a great tale of heroes and villains, of battle and of the beauty we’re called as men to protect.

Arcātheos, as its website states, was founded in the year 2003 under the guiding hands and inspired vision of Dr. Brian Doran (also known as ArchLord Valerian!). “This camp has quickly grown into one of the most exciting boys camps in North America. After all… what boy can resist the chance to draw his sword, or fire water-balloons by catapult, against a menacing horde of evil villains?”

Dr. Doran’s dream was and is to make Arcātheos a place where truth, beauty, virtue and valor are breathed into the boy’s imaginations through story, adventure and live-action role playing. There’s archery, sword-craft, obstacle courses, and “missions” hiking through dense forests of lodgepole pine, black spruce and poplar trees. The boys form divisions that scout out for the presence of an evil that seeks to infiltrate and corrupt this beautiful land. Random raids and ambushes from dads, young adults and even seminarians dressed as EBG’s — aka Evil Bad Guys — keep the boys on their toes! (And the older men happily bruised from battle with firm foam swords). 

Bill Donaghy (right, with axe) as Commander Hiraeth.

Permeating the ethos of Arcātheos is a spirit of collaboration and brotherhood through this intentional hierarchy of mentoring fathers, and young knights who’ve gone through training to better mentor and model virtuous leadership to the young boys attending camp. 

The lads lived for a week unplugged, under the stars, completely removed from their “normal” lives of screens and video games, sugar cereal and uh, showers. They rose early, worked at their drills, learned to wield a sword, set and loose arrows from sturdy bows, tackle an impressive obstacle course and battle the forces of evil over hill and dale, under hot sun and cool nights. And they loved every minute of it.

Arcātheos is also steeped in a Catholic sacramentality. Amidst the adventures there’s daily adoration, and every day of “missions” for the ArchLord and the King of All Realms (God!) starts with Holy Mass. Campfires are not far from outdoor confessionals. “Everything at camp is tailored to inspire a friendship with Christ, and gives boys an opportunity to encounter the great strength of their Catholic faith.” (www.Arcatheos.com)

C.S. Lewis once spoke of his Chronicles of Narnia as being a way to “smuggle theology” into the hearts of the young (and old). In his Letter to Artists, St. John Paul II wrote that artists must bridge the gap between worlds. He made this appeal in his letter: “The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force.” (Letter to Artists, 15)

This is Arcātheos. A place of grace. An incarnational experience of the highest caliber where boys enter into the same epic struggle between good and evil they face in their moral lives but cloaked in the “disguise” of myth and story. What a way to incarnate faith and the transcendent destiny of the human person! What a gift to be a part of this week and this apostolate, building boys into men for the spreading of the Kingdom of God and of goodness; to be able to teach through story that a young man is made to be a guardian of Beauty, to be a protector and shield of woman and of the family (the world within the world of Arcātheos is Captivenia, the equivalent but very different camp for young girls). 

In an age when we’re being led to believe that our identity is all a social construct and that there’s no difference between boys and girls, these camps are a refreshing course in the humanity we each embody. May the battle for the beauty of being human continue and the joyful work of Arcātheos be blessed! As the boys cried out at every meal, after a beautifully chanted “grace before meals” under the banners and white tent of Hagman Hall…. “Christ our King! Thy Kingdom come!”

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Images by Bill Donaghy, TOB Institute.