Catholicism Into the Wild – Crisis Magazine

On the mountain, the Lord will see. Thus did Abraham, in the book of Genesis, name the mountain where God tested him by ordering him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The Bible is full of stories where prophets and holy men encounter God in the wilderness, in deserted places where no one lives. Moses, Abraham, Elijah, Elisha, and of course, Christ Himself, all encountered God in places beyond the reach of human civilization. Though God, in the person of Jesus Christ, united Himself to human nature, His presence can still be found in creation, even as mankind gains seemingly more control over it.

That Catholics and everyone else can still experience the presence of God in nature, especially in the quiet solitude of the wilderness, is one of the key tenets of a special program established years ago at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. The COR Expeditions program is designed to facilitate spiritual encounters through professionally instructed outdoor activities and deep wilderness experiences, according to its website. 

These trips feature three components: adventure activities, leadership training, and spiritual formation. The adventures include any number of challenging activities, from kayaking to mountain climbing, spelunking, and virtually any other outdoor group activity you can think of. The leadership component teaches people how to flourish in an environment that is physically demanding and challenging.  

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But all these activities serve a larger, spiritual purpose: the encounter with God in the Book of Nature. Chaplains offer daily Mass and adoration on these trips, while there is also opportunity for communal prayer of the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours.

Wyoming Catholic has beenproviding this outdoor experience to its undergraduates at since 2007. But in 2016, Dr Thomas Zimmer founded COR as an outreach of the College so that it could provide expeditions for others besides WCCstudents, including seminarians from select seminaries, such as Holy Trinity in Irving, Texas, and that of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York City.

Zimmer is an experienced outdoorsman, having led outdoor trips since 1994, and his program is accredited by the outdoor industry accreditation board, the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). The program is a large one, with a full-time staff of eighteen people, the core of which boasts seventy years of collective experience leading groups on outdoor adventures. Zimmer informed me that COR currently conducts more than 100 customized trips each year for middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities, as well as youth groups and families, among others. Besides its trips in the areas around Lander, COR owns a property in Moab, Utah, which they also explore. Zimmer also told me in our interview that COR is opening a family-friendly dude ranch that caters specifically to Catholic families. 

But helping to form seminarians is the ultimate goal of COR. And to further this aim, Zimmer and his numerous colleagues have created the St. Jogues Seminarian Project. Starting in June of 2024, the program will allow 12 seminarians, aged eighteen and older, to experience life in the wilderness. They will be accompanied by a chaplain who will celebrate Mass and Eucharistic adoration. 

Helping to form seminarians is the ultimate goal of COR. And to further this aim, Zimmer and his numerous colleagues have created the St. Jogues Seminarian Project.Tweet This

The ten-week program is highlighted by a three-week trek into the wilderness, in which seminarians will learn skills to manage the difficulties encountered in an outdoor environment, such as first aid training. COR emphasizes principles such as risk management, both in the wilderness and everyday lifesomething as relevant to lay people as it is to clergy and seminarians. This is followed by opportunities for ministry on retreats with families or students, and it is capped off by a one-week mission trip serving the poor in Denver, Colorado. Seminarians can also take upper-level courses during the summer through Wyoming Catholic College and earn credit toward their degree while going through the program. 

Zimmer stressed the benefits of having seminarians form bonds in challenging circumstances outdoors. He said that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal used the program to build community among their friars, who live alone in cells and dont often interact with each other in their friary. Zimmer likewise stresses the value of living without the safety net of technology for several weeks. In this room, I can change the temperature, I can move the mouse on my computer, do things when I want. Im in control. But out there, you cant do that. This contact with nature unmediated by our modern technology is one of the selling points of CORs outreach, and it is a key reason why it appeals to seminary directors. 

Andre Klaes, a missionary with COR who is working on the St. Jogues Project, emphasized to me the spiritual benefits of the program for seminarians. In addition to daily Mass and adoration, the three-week trip offers opportunities for spiritual direction, as well as a one-day silent retreat. Klaes especially emphasized the depth and intensity of prayer participants would experience in their wilderness adventure. When I asked him to bottom line why seminarians should sign up for the program, he specifically mentioned four items: the depth of prayer, the chance to minister to others, the experience of brotherhood with their fellow seminarians, and the masculine challenge of the wilderness.

And that is a theme both men emphasized with their new program. The namesake of the project, St. Isaac Jogues, evangelized among the Native Americans of North America and suffered a violent, gruesome martyrdom as a result. One would have to be quite unaware of trends in contemporary society not to notice the crisis of masculinity that appears to grip Western societieseven within the Catholic Church, where there is a dearth of masculine exemplars for young Catholic men to imitate. This is likely why so many find themselves drawn to non-Catholic personalities who stress masculine virtues, such as Jordan Peterson. The programs website stresses leadership and mental tenacity training as one of its elements, taking St. Isaac Jogues masculinity, courage, tenacity, and humility as its model in hopes of imitating the North American martyrs who answered the Lords call to enter the spiritual wilderness of their time. 

The St. Jogues Project appears particularly well-suited to the historical moment in which the Church finds herself. The Church and all her members are called at all times and in all places to make sacrifices to spread the truth of Jesus Christ in a world that is often hostile to it. But in the current state of Western civilization, those men willing to serve the Lord as His ministers in persona Christi must make even greater sacrifices in the spiritual wilderness of contemporary society. If the St. Jogues Project can fulfill its promise, then at least some of those young men will not go into that wilderness unprepared.

Interested seminarians can contact the St. Jogues Seminarian Project and apply via their website directly, or email the program at [email protected]. Applications for the program are due April 1, and the program runs from June 1August 9, 2024. The cost per seminarian is $5,700.

  • Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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