College students joined Father Nick Blaha on a grueling wilderness retreat to gain a greater appreciation for God’s beautiful creation
by Monte Mace
EMPORIA — Giving up chocolate would have been easier.
But 11 area college students and Father Nick Blaha of the Didde Catholic Campus Center in Emporia didn’t want easy for Lent. Instead, they went on a grueling Lenten wilderness retreat. Hiking a total of 30 miles in rugged mountains carrying backpacks weighing 30 pounds or more and foregoing showers for a week, the 12 climbed 2,000 feet while getting soaked to the skin in a steady rain on their toughest day.
The benefits? A greater appreciation of God’s creation. A deeper sense of trust in God. And a very practical lesson in how to really pray.
Emporia State student Shianne Cokely said that while sitting on a canyon rim one day, a cloud overtook the group during Father Blaha’s sermon.
“In that moment — watching the cloud drift in and out,” said the 19-year-old, “it felt like God was lifting all my worries away.”
Chloe Mooradian, also 19, and a Washburn University student in Topeka, said her most memorable moment was participating in Mass at the top of 7,832-foot-high Emory Peak.
“It’s going to be hard to beat it as the best Mass I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
“What appealed to me most was the opportunity to find God in nature and the wilderness and get away from the busyness of modern society and media,” said Sophia Olsen, 20, who attends Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg. “Also, nothing out in the desert wilderness is controlled or built by man, so it
is all very obviously creditable to God.” Felicia Sullivan, 21, of Emporia State, compared the rigors of the trip to a “small fraction” of the struggles Christ faced.
At one point, she ended up all alone because some of the hikers were moving fast and slower ones trailed behind her. She began saying every prayer she had ever learned and singing favorite church songs.
“I have asthma and I had a very hard time breathing with the altitude adjustment,” she said. “This trip really helped me realize how to talk to God.
“Before, I felt kind of silly talking to God because I kind of felt like I was just talking to myself. But at that moment, I knew God was really listening.”
The Lenten retreat was organized by the Didde Center and was the brain- child of the center’s chaplain, Father Blaha, who has been reading about the Desert Fathers. These fourth-century Christian monks sought God in silence, solitude and penance — and strove to refine and purify the spirit by renouncing all pleasures of the senses, such as rich food, baths, rest and comfort.
“I was really hoping that celebrating the sacraments and providing opportunities to enter into Christ-centered prayer would help [the students] grow — not just in admiration for the beauty of creation, but for the One who both created and redeemed it from its fallen state,” said Father Blaha.
The retreatants included four students from Emporia State University, four from Kansas State University, two from Washburn and one from Pittsburg State University. The group was led by Father Blaha, who is an experienced backpacker. Most of the students had experience camping or backpacking.
The group drove 14 hours and 900 miles to reach the retreat site: Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, located on the border between Texas and Mexico. Once known as the little Grand Canyon, the park sprawls over 800,000 acres alongside a huge bend in the Rio Grande River.
It is home to mountain lions, bears, whiptail lizards and a large variety of flora and fauna. Admirers describe the park as having night skies as dark as coal and canyons that resemble temples.
The students celebrated Mass daily, recited the rosary and spent time in silent prayer and reflection. Father Blaha related their daily experiences to Scripture passages, the Desert Fathers and Lenten traditions. The campers slept outdoors in tents and ate sparingly — oatmeal and trail mix for breakfast, cold lunches gulped down while hiking, and, for dinner, freeze-dried meal packages heated up. The group covered three to eight miles a day.
The hikers experienced God’s presence in different ways.
Father Blaha said he was surprised at how often the scriptural readings of the day turned out applying to what they were experiencing on that particular segment of the trip.
“For instance, on the day we had Mass on Emory Peak, the first reading was from the Book of Isaiah: ‘On every barren height shall their pastures be.’ After all our struggles to get up the mountain and very seriously considering turning around at one point, to arrive at the ‘barren height’ and to be nourished — not only by the beauty of the landscape but by the Eucharist — was a stirring grace for me.”
Many in the group learned to let go of fears and rely more on God than themselves.
Olsen said the trip gave her “a stronger sense of inner peace that cannot be shaken.”
“Whenever I am stressed or over- whelmed,” Olsen continued, “I remember the sense of awe and peace I felt sitting on top of the South Rim, staring out into a cloud after conquering the hardest hike of my life so far.
“And I find it within myself and return there. And I know God has control and everything will work out.”
Father Blaha said the most memorable part of the trip for him was the day the group had to leave behind a large amount of food and water because they were overloaded. He intended to hike back later to retrieve the supplies, but soon realized he didn’t have the strength to double back.
“As we hit our breaking point, the last hikers in our train came up to us,” he said. “One of them, Alex (Hajek-Jones), had picked up most of our food, eliminating the need to go back for it that day.
“Alex had been a late addition to the trip after the deadline for application had passed. I had almost told him there was no room. The trip quite literally would have ended three days early if he hadn’t been there.”
The hiking trip ended at the hot springs of the Rio Grande, where the group soaked in 108-degree water to relieve stiff muscles.