Joseph “Johny” Abraham and Geoff Merz share how the beauty of nature brings them closer to God, as well as their motivation and experience of organising an out-of-theordinary backpacking retreat.
“A warm body doesn’t mean I’m alive… I want to thrive, not just survive” – Jon Foreman, Thrive
I (Joseph) have always loved going into the woods – although for much of my life, I have opted for air conditioning, being on the internet and staying indoors, safe from the creepy-crawlies outside my door. I’m not the bravest guy in the world, and what that means is I’ve actually been very afraid for much of my life. I feel safer inside, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, watching YouTube videos, and curling up on the couch. It’s not exciting, but it’s easy.
Oftentimes too, our culture pressures us to live in a perpetual pursuit of tomorrow – not that healthy pragmatism and preparation which is so necessary to living a balanced life, but rather an unending enslavement to the worldly view of success. In the Our Father, we ask the Lord to “give us this day our daily bread”, and it is certainly intentional that it does not say “give us this bread tomorrow too”. The Lord follows up on this prayer in Matthew by saying, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” (6:25) This is a God of the present who has called us to life, and life in its abundance! Surely then, we have been made to thrive. Out in the wilderness, you have to be and stay in the present.
The first time I went backpacking, I began to see the world a little differently. I began to realise how much time I wasted daily doing things that were out of touch with my own desires, how much of my time was spent killing time. To abandon desire is often to embrace sinfulness, to live in fear, and to stifle the longings of our heart with cheap indulgent substitutes. In contrast, I found that even a moment in the mountains, an hour on the trail, or a conversation in a tent could rejuvenate, heal, and awaken my heart in ways that no couch could compete with. I cannot pretend that I don’t still often find myself wasting time in the most comfortable, convenient ways available, but I see now that true joy is around the corner for pursuing my deepest desires, and that has permanently changed the way I perceive the world.
To me (Geoff), outdoors is a place of true beauty. Not just the awe-inspiring cliffs that soar into the stratosphere or the crystal clear springs that chisel their way through the winding canyons, but, more than anything else, in how I see others and myself. When you are backpacking, all of the societal pressures of what it means to be beautiful go out of the window. The spotlessness of your skin, smell of your body, straightness of your hair, or style of your clothes loses its hold. In that is a new freedom. A freedom to live out in a deeper way the person that God created you to be. And in that freedom is an incredible source of beauty. I also found myself appreciating the beauty of others so much more while backpacking. The outdoors prompt us to look outside of ourselves, where there are no mirrors to tempt us, getting caught up in our appearance. This allows us to truly see our fellow brothers and sisters without worrying about how we present ourselves. Herein lies a true beauty, a beauty that the wilderness can awaken.
“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” – Pope Benedict XVI
During Johny’s third year in college and Geoff’s final year at Penn State University, we went backpacking with a few friends near the Cherry Springs State Park in Northern Pennsylvania. This trip was an incredibly beautiful experience for all of us, although it was only for a couple of nights. We went for a weekend in the middle of the semester and came back with a newfound peace and joy from stepping out of the hectic semester and simply being in God’s creation. We also encountered each other in a new, fresh way that we had not known before.
Following on from our experience of the trip, Geoff and I began to throw around the idea of creating a backpacking retreat. Around the same time, I had spoken to another friend, Fr. Joe Papes from Florida, about doing some kind of outdoor program for Jesus Youth. A few phone calls, Google searches, colourful spreadsheets, and an abandoned plan to go to Colorado later, our dream became a real plan.
And with this desire in our heart, we reached out to a few friends that had expressed an interest in going into the wilderness and we began to put together a group. We were like the George Clooney and Brad Pitt of Ocean’s Eleven (the jury is still out on who is who), but planning a Catholic backpacking retreat instead of a casino robbery. This was a beautiful stage of the journey, as it involved many personal conversations and connecting with people in this shared passion. It was exciting to hear people share what was stirring in their hearts or see how immediately a nurse would block off days from work during our first conversation! And so, the anticipation grew in our hearts and we awaited the time to retreat into nature.
“I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” – Psalm 122:1
A few months later, the conversations and invitations became a reality. After assembling our motley JY crew of 18 adventurers in Dallas Texas, we set out in our series of caravans (minivans) to the Gila National Forest for the first ever THRIVE backpacking retreat. Thirteen hours later, we found ourselves at the bottom of the canyon. The sun blazed down through the crisp and dry air as we filled up our last water bottles in the parking lot and set out for our first campsite. The ample number of stream crossings provided some relief from the heat, but also left our feet quite wet. It turns out that waterproof boots are as good at keeping the water out as they are keeping it in! It also became readily apparent that this was not your conventional retreat; but in fact, it was truly a retreat from the barrage of tasks in life. Instead of talks and planned group discussions, our days were filled with viscerally awakening experiences, genuine conversations, cooking feats, Holy Mass and adoration, and simply being together.
On the trip, we found ourselves caught up in various escapades, including but not limited to grossly overestimating our group walking capacity, losing and finding two pairs of glasses in the same stream in the same morning, cooking the most delicious Hiker’s Mash, going on dramatic expeditions to find water, climbing immense rock formations, playing Telephone with murderous intentions, and visiting hot springs infested with brain eating amoebas! Luckily, in the process, we lost no limbs and had no fatalities (with the exception of a few Word Assassin kills that were particularly brutal). You may think this sounds more like “fun” than a retreat, but that is part of the point. To step back from trying to create a theological experience, but rather, to see God revealed through the beauty and joy of experiencing creation.
The trip itself was an exciting and beautiful adventure, with enough stories to fill up many, many text documents, that this one alone could not contain. Perhaps when you meet one of these people they will share some stories with you! Until then, we hope you bring the Lord into your passions and share them with others. And if you get a chance, come out into the woods and revel in the beauty of God’s creation with your brothers and sisters.
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