Wonder in the wilderness

Porcupine Mountains State Wilderness Park in the upper peninsula of Michigan (Yinan Chen [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home.

I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn't worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became my companions as I journeyed through the struggles of adolescence and meandered in and out of the Catholic Church: Why aren't children automatically taught to pray outside, to see God's presence in the wonders of creation? Why is knowledge more emphasized than experience when it comes to faith formation? Will I ever feel God as present in the sacraments and inside church walls as I do when I am under trees and starlit skies? Are the people I am praying with at Mass in love with God, too, or are they there out of duty and obligation?

Many of these questions resolved as I grew into my Catholic faith and came to understand and appreciate the beauties of our traditions and teachings.

Yet one question lingered loudly and would poke at me regularly: Why don't we offer adults the same opportunities for prayer and adventure in the outdoors as we offer children? How can we open up the Bible camp experience to adults, to help them encounter God in nature and deepen their faith?

I started to explore how this might be possible once I joined the staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Without really knowing what I was getting myself into, I planned and publicized a backpacking retreat in collaboration with Camp Manito-Wish YMCA. Although I've never actually gone backpacking before, I figured it might be a good way to start.

Discipleship can begin with desires to share what has blessed us and made us into who we are. Following Christ means responding to the summons to go into uncertain territory, every step forward a little risk.

Questions can fuel our efforts, enliven our exploration and dreaming. Along the way, we might not be able to shake the feeling that we don't know what we're doing, that we're exploring new lands. This is good, more than OK. Discomfort means we are growing and changing, embracing the call to conversion, an element of saying yes to Christ.

Last Thursday night, I was gathered around a table with a small group of women who were about to become my close companions for a weekend in the wilderness. The only one in our group who had backpacked before was the young woman on staff at Camp Manito-Wish.

I watched the faces of my new friends reveal anxiety, horror and excitement as we listened to the experienced one describe the purposes for our group gear that we must carry: the tarp, the rope, the shovel. Until that moment, not all of us had considered that there would be no toilets along the trail we'd be walking.

Earlier, during the opening circle of the retreat, I heard some of them say they came to the retreat for the challenge and the experience of trying something new. Perhaps "no toilets" wasn't quite the challenge they were hoping for, but God has a sneaky way of getting us to step out of our comfort zones. Once we say yes to the Great Mystery, we all are required to strip down, to simplify.

The next day, we started up the trail, up a steep incline through fog and mist. I hadn't yet figured out how to adjust my heavy pack so I could move my head around normally. My hiking poles were clicking, my boots pounding over gravel and roots and rocks. I was breathing heavily and couldn't see well — my glasses were fogged up in the thick humidity.

It was only the first mile of 14, and I was starting to wonder how God was going to work through each participant's ups and downs on this mysterious trail. New questions surfaced, questions of how to gently companion others along their journey, how to become an offering to God.

After setting up camp beside a little lake in the woods later that afternoon, a Franciscan friar and I sat on the ground with a small group under the tall trees. We were sharing our love for St. Clare of Assisi and telling others about her way of being a loving resister and reformer.

As we talked about her love for the "privilege of poverty" — not having more than one needs — a guide from Camp Manito-Wish sat near us, kneading bread dough. The yeast was active between her knuckles, the flour and water coming into communion and creating new life.

Later, the bread baked among the coals of a campfire. Then we were fed and strengthened for walking forward down the trail, carrying only what we needed for survival, experiencing the freedom found in stripping to essentials.

The second day on the trail, we made our way through gentle rain and thick fog and up and down hills. We squished through mud and over boardwalks. We crossed streams and stepped over rocks and roots. We swatted mosquitos and purified water. We hiked nearly 8 miles with at least 30 pounds on our backs.

Later, on the shore of Lake Superior where we set up our campsite, the gray clouds parted and the sun brightened. We warmed ourselves next to a fire and celebrated Mass on the rocky shore as the setting sun colored the sky with pink, violet and orange.

The next day, we all arrived back to the trailhead with a sense of accomplishment and awe brightening our faces, along with grime and sweat. Changed by the encounters, the journey and the praying community that companioned us, we weren't the same as when we started.

During the closing circle of the retreat, people said their faith was renewed, they learned a lot about humility, they found themselves thinking of the many people in the world who don't get to enjoy the privileges of running water and electricity as they regularly do.

The community gave thanks, blessed one another and exchanged signs of peace before returning to their ordinary lives. But they left different than they came.

When I encountered God around that campfire as a scrawny preteen, I never would have imagined that years later, my love of God would turn into such wonder and convictions. Yes, adults can also experience the enrichment of praying outdoors. Yes, God is active in the adventure of abandoning ourselves to the possibilities of carrying only what we need. Yes, conversion closer to Christ comes with traveling over unknown trails with a praying community and letting our devotion to persistent questions show us The Way.

[Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]