The Spiritual Life and the Desert Canyons of Utah
On June 1st, 2022, I started driving to Lander, Wyoming to be the chaplain on a COR Expeditions Leadership trip. COR Expeditions, COR as an acronym for Catholic Outdoor Renewal as well as the Latin word for heart, brings people into the backcountry to experience the beauty of creation and experience the grandeur of God. This was my fourth time serving as chaplain with them, and I was looking forward to again working with Zach and Betz, the trip leaders and guides. The main area COR goes is to the Wind River Range (often referred to as the Winds), a 2.25-million-acre wilderness that is part of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been there before and was very much looking forward to the snow-capped mountains, cold water streams and lakes, rolling terrain, and wide-open plains. The Winds are certainly a special place and have experienced the grandeur of God there in many ways. It’s also a harsh place. One time while camping between some mountain peaks around 12,000 ft, I experienced a storm full of thunder, lightning, wind and rain and was certainly the most powerful lightning and thunder I’ve ever experienced. Mountains can be a place of extremes, and I’ve certainly felt it in the Winds. So as excited as I was to work with COR again, I was also moderately apprehensive of the possible conditions in the Winds.
It was early June so the forecast was for melting snow, highs just above freezing, and a bit of rain. Not pleasant but part of the deal when backpacking. When I met up with Zach, we caught up for a minute, but he had a stressed look on his face. “Father, we gotta make some changes.” In backpacking (and the spiritual life) things don’t always go as planned. “The forecast is for 7 days of freezing rain, that’s not going to work for our program.” Zach and the people of COR certainly could handle this weather, as unpleasant as it was, but this was a trip leader training course, and we wanted time to pray, share the faith, and learn from each other, not just try to survive the elements. He went on, “We’re changing the trip from the Winds to the desert and canyons in Utah.” Whoa that’s a big change! I brought a zero-degree sleeping bag, serious boots, and all the other things necessary for late Spring mountain hiking. And instead, I would be in canyons, where water can be scarce, it gets real hot, and there’s a lot more poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions to deal with.
The mountains were always a place I’ve felt comfortable. The challenge of hiking up the slopes, the views they provide, often not secluded, and generally not a place that’s easy to get to. Throughout the Bible many important events happen on top of mountains. These stories speak to me, they are comfortable and known. One of my first thoughts on the drive from Wyoming to Utah was did anything in the Bible important happen in the desert? It was a ridiculous question after I thought about it for a second but being from the East Coast I don’t cross deserts all that often. It was good for me to be out of my element.
Over the next 10 days of the trip, with the challenges of finding water, dealing with the heat, and avoiding fire ants, I reflected on the desert and the spiritual life. The two major takeaways I had were about the desert in general, and then a specific Biblical story.
The desert is not an easy place to live in. There’s a lot more to it than a first look provides. Dropping into a canyon, and not exactly sure when or where you are getting out is unsettling. There’s a lot more life in the canyon than I ever thought. Instead of being barren and boring, there was quite a lot of trees and shrubs, and wherever you found water there was an abundance of life. It is real hot in the day, a bit cooler at night. In a desert canyon, route finding isn’t an issue most of the time, you stay in the canyon and go forward! But there are junctions and decisions need to be made, and if you haven’t been paying attention to the map you can get into trouble.
The newness of the desert was welcome, but certainly a challenge. And it threw me headfirst into spiritual and physical instability. This instability isn’t a bad thing, it’s expected in life and the spiritual life, but after spending months preparing for mountain cold, I was not ready for desert heat. And that’s a perfect image for the spiritual life. We can prepare as much as we’d like but we don’t know what God has ready for us. Sometimes a quick spiritual reflection on a prayer or verse of Scripture brings some further understating of the spiritual life but a closer look can provide much more depth and grace. Like route finding in the canyons, the spiritual life can be straightforward for a while. Maybe even boring or underwhelming. But then we come to a junction with one or two or more options to go forward. And if you haven’t been paying attention, or don’t know where you are on the map, it can be very confusing and disorienting.
One the biggest lessons to realize in backpacking and the spiritual life is to realize that you are not alone. This wasn’t the first time the guides were in this canyon: they knew where to camp, they knew where the water was, they understood the objective hazards. In the spiritual life we are not alone. Certainly, there are books and people around us who can help. Also, we must realize we have the support of the angels and the saints. And as Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am present. We can always ask the Holy Spirit to be with us in our spiritual journey, from the little decisions to the big ones.
The other major event on this trip was having a reading from 1 King 17 as a part of the readings for a daily Mass. It was a particularly hot day in the middle of the trip. Because we were unsure where there was water, each of us was carrying about 2 gallons of water. Pretty heavy. We had an idea of what the terrain would be like, but with canyons, things are changing regularly. Sometimes it can be clear and easy. Other times there are large bushes to navigate through or boulders to climb over. Not the easiest hiking.
That morning we celebrated Mass and listened to 1 Kings 17. The story is mostly about Elijah who is going through the desert. The Lord promised him water and food. Ravens brought him food (and there were many ravens in the canyon that we are in, but they didn’t bring us any food) but the river ran dry. The Lord told Elijah to go to Zarephath for food and water. When Elijah arrived, a widow welcomed him and provided him with food and water. There’s more to the story but listening to Elijah walking through the hot desert looking for food and water while we ourselves were carrying all our food, but still looking for water is powerful. At times we were two to three days from a vehicle, two or three days from security and comfort. Certainly, we need to be practically prepared, but also, we need to know why we were spending more than a week in the challenging conditions of a canyon in early summer. We weren’t there to go exploring, we were there to pray, learn from each other, and grow in deeper relationship. And when the daily Mass reading is about a prophet walking through the desert looking for water and you are in a desert looking for water, it is abundantly clear how much God was working in our lives.
St. Francis is often pictured with a deer or rabbit or bird, which can be good and cute. But if we only take St. Francis and his love of creation at face value, we are missing out. If we only look at a canyon, maybe take some pictures and even spend a lot of time there, but don’t enter into the depths of the canyon, we will be missing out. I found the desert canyons to be a lot like the spiritual life: a place of unknowns, uncertainty, and possibly even some danger. But lived in with the help of a community, dedicating some time to enter the canyon, asking for God’s help, the canyon taught me a lot. And I think the same is true for the spiritual life.
St. Francis spent a lot of the end of his life in the solitude of nature entering into a deeper relationship with God. I’ve always tried to take some time throughout the year to do the same, and I hope you might consider doing the same.