The week before my wedding, I attended an outdoor men’s experiential retreat with about 100 other men from around Western New York. The weekend was filled with various team building exercises, campfire discussions, and keynote speakers. On the third day of the retreat, following one of the talks, we were given an hour of quiet time to recollect. Needing more than personal quiet time, I decided to take a hike in the woods to find God.
I walked at a quick pace out of the campground and up a hill armed with just my cell phone and a small solar powered reading light. It would be a challenge to make it to the peak and back before the next activity, especially with daylight fading, but I had to do it, both for God and for myself. As I reached the peak 20 minutes later, it became clear that the sun was vanishing faster than I had anticipated. As the evening darkness approached, it also started to rain.
I called out to God, as strange as it sounds, because I had such a desire in my heart to see Him face to face on this mountain. I knew God had a message for me deep in these woods. As I called out to my God, fog rolled over the wooded hilltop. No response. 10 minutes passed. Nothing. I decided I must have passed God’s test, now I could return back to the camp.
It was not long after I began my descent that fear began to set in. As the woods became darker, my fear became stronger. It was a fear of the unknown, the same feeling I had felt as a child alone in the dark, except this fear was based in a real danger for there were many bears and other animals who frequented these same woods. Trying to navigate down the hill, my reading light only provided limited utility, allowing me to see a small tunnel of light that best illuminated the next 3 steps in front of me.
A half hour passed and I had not yet reached the camp. I reasoned that I must have veered too much in one direction, so I corrected my path and started back down another hill. Another hour passed. I started passing landmarks I didn’t remember passing on my way up. I came upon a stream and remembering that all streams flow down I praised God for helping me find a way out. I followed this stream through prickly brush followed by a swamp only to find the stream end at a lake nestled between two hillsides. My spirit broke.
I ended up emerging from the forest about 5 hours after I entered, 8.5 miles away from where I originally started.
The most common question I was asked when I returned to camp was if I was afraid.
I was terrified, but only before I was lost. Once I was lost, the fear was replaced by a profound realization of my own weakness, selfishness and lack of faith. I thought about the people who depended on me, people I cared about and loved. I thought of the men back at camp who must have been worrying, particularly my older brother who I imagined thinking about the loss of his younger brother. I thought most of how I had failed my fiancé who I was supposed to marry the following weekend.
It came to a point in those woods where I realized there was no way I would make it out that night unless God assisted me. My flashlight died. I was wet and it was very cold and my boots were literally filled with water from forging across creeks. My phone had no reception and was almost entirely dead and I was weak and had fallen at least 50 times. If I had remained in the woods for any longer, there was a good chance I would have developed hypothermia.
This experience has special meaning for me as I enter more deeply into this season of advent. I think of my own helplessness and the need I have for a Savior. I think of all the thorns that dug into my skin, all the painful falls I took on large wooden trunks and how this Savior’s love was made manifest for me. I think of the profound trust and obedience of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother that makes any act of mine pale in comparison.
I think most of God’s love and the need I have for a deeper conversion.
I entered the woods hoping to meet God face to face and met him in the realization of my mortality, a mortality he took on for my sake.