By William Manaker, SJ
For the past three summers, the vocations team has invited several discerners and a few Jesuits to a Wilderness Discernment Retreat in Wyoming. The experience was planned and led in collaboration with COR Expeditions, whose mission is to “provide transformative wilderness experiences that renew the hearts of participants.”
William Manaker, SJ, shares his remembrances of this challenging and beautiful time.
As an introduction, let me share with you an image of the Wilderness Retreat as I experienced it.
It was the sixth day of the retreat. The day before, we had set up camp near a small mountain lake, as we usually did, but this morning, instead of packing up and hitting the trail, we stayed put. It was a day of silence and prayer.
I looked down on my watch. It was time for my turn, so I grabbed my prayer book and walked the 60 meters from our cook site to the large weather-beaten rock that jutted out into the dark blue water of the lake. There, at the end of the rock, we had built an altar from loose stones, and upon the altar was a linen corporal and a small monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament.
As I approached the altar, I knelt in adoration on the rock. Shortly after, the retreatant whose shift had just ended got up and walked quietly away. I was alone with the Lord.
There on the rock, I was in a magnificent cathedral.
The ridge of trees and rocks surrounding the lake enclosed and secluded the space, forming a wall that stretched into the sky. The silence was complete, broken only by the occasional rustling of the wind and the gentle hum of mosquitoes. And here before me, sacramentally present on the altar, was the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator of such astounding beauty.
That day on the lake, our silent day, was undoubtedly the most powerful experience of the retreat. But the entire expedition, from the day we entered the wilderness to the day we left, was a true “spiritual exercise” — an activity that prepared and disposed all of those making and guiding the retreat to rid ourselves of disordered attachments and to seek and find God’s will for our lives (cf. SpEx 1).
We were a group of nine men: two guides from COR Expeditions, three Jesuits, and four men discerning a possible Jesuit vocation. Our journey spanned eight days of camping: six full days in the Bridger Wilderness of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, plus a day of camping on each end to enter and exit the wilderness area. There in the wilderness, no mechanical or motorized vehicles are permitted; if there was trouble, we’d have to get ourselves out on foot.
Each day in the wilderness, apart from the silent day, we hiked for several hours along trails at over 8,000 feet, carrying all our food and supplies in packs that initially weighed more than 40 pounds. Despite the limitations in cookware and supplies, we ate well, making quesadillas, beans and rice, and even homemade pizzas.
The stunning beauty of the Wind River Range and the majesty and grandeur of the scenery naturally prompted prayer and reflection. The wilderness opens many beautiful pages in the book of creation; there, it is not hard to move from wonder at nature to contemplation of creation’s divine Author.
Time in the wilderness is a time of removal from the world and the cares and the comforts of contemporary life. Much like the early monks of Egypt, the nine of us journeying together were alone with God. Physically separated from others, we were free of the busyness of work and sheltered from the never-ending stream of media through phones and other devices. Though we could not be physically silent the entire retreat, the natural setting and the separation from daily life fostered an interior silence that gave birth to spiritual conversation. Instead of chatting on the trail about sports or the latest news, the setting and the company prompted conversations about prayer, about God, and about vocation. Each day, we celebrated Mass, took time for silent prayer both on the trail and in the camp, and had conferences about the virtues and Ignatian prayer and spirituality.
In addition to a space for prayer and reflection, the wilderness is also a place of testing one’s virtue, as the desert was for Israel. The physical challenge of hiking at altitude with heavy packs was considerable, as was the trial of constant assault by mosquitoes. Furthermore, we were without many of the typical comforts of modern life, sleeping in tents and exposed to the elements. But, as we experienced, this testing gave birth to humility and recognition of one’s need for God’s grace, an important spiritual lesson always worth learning and re-learning.
On the drive back to the airport from our wilderness trek, our group took time to share graces from the experience.
Each of us had gained from it: a clearer sense of God’s call, greater freedom, deeper humility, gratitude for the gift of creation and more. The fruit was clear.
I am glad that we can continue to offer such a retreat to others.