Priest trades mountain high for spiritual one

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Moses and Father Gary Pennings have something in common: They’ve both been to the mountain.

Not the same mountain. Moses had his Sinai; Father Pennings had his Indian Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.

When he was a younger man, one of Father Penning’s hobbies was hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Colorado’s Front Range and in the vicinity of Granby Lake.

This was before ordination, or even seminary, in his previous career as a paramedic and emergency medical service administrator.

“A friend of mine I used to work with turned me on to backpacking,” said Father Pennings. “The first time I didn’t have any gear, so I took his wife’s gear. I had to wear her backpack, which was embarrassing, because it was fuchsia and some other bright color. Pink, I think.”

Sartorial issues aside, one trip was all it took: The young paramedic was hooked on that Rocky Mountain high. He got his own gear and, before long, treks up the mountains became a regular part of his life.

Like any beginner, Father Pennings had to learn what to bring and what to leave behind. For example, bringing a Bible is good. But bringing a family-size Bible suitable for holding down a coffee table is bad.

Moses, who carried down the Law of the Lord written on stone tablets, could have told him that.

“The next time I went I brought a little, tiny Bible,” he said.

Photographs from those days show a vaguely piratical-looking Father Pennings with a bandana on his head and a healthy growth of beard.

“We used to have contests when we would go hiking to see how long our beards would get,” he said. “When I was young, my beard was red, although my hair was brown.”

Backpacking worked well in combination with another of Father Penning’s for

mer hobbies: photography. He caught that bug in high school, and carried it on until he went into the seminary. He got rid of all his equipment years ago, but he still has many great photos — especially of his hikes.

His favorite time of year to backpack was the fall, and his favorite kind of terrain was at the tree line. He’d make camp in the woods and then hike up to patches of year-round snow.

He became so experienced that he even did it alone, although this is something even the most experienced backwoods hikers advise against.

Father Pennings doesn’t have any great bear stories to tell, although one did sniff around for food outside his tent once.

“Sometimes when you’re up there by yourself, you hear a lot of things at night,” he said. “I’ve never had any dangerous encounters with a wild beast. The place I went we didn’t have any grizzlies, just black bears, so we’d always put our food up in a tree.”

He has, however, experienced the awesome force of a mountain storm.

“Being caught in a thunderstorm up there in the mountains can be scary, when your tent is blowing in all directions, and all there is between you and the elements is a thin sheet of nylon,” said Father Pennings.

One of the best things about being in the mountains wasn’t the scenery, he said, but the feeling — the feeling of being close to God. There’s nothing he liked better than to sit on a rock and write in his journal, or to pray.

“One of the things I learned about [through backpacking] is the glory of God,” said Father Pennings. “There’s a reason the Bible talks about so many biblical figures – Jesus and others — going to a mountaintop to pray.

“It’s symbolic language,” he said, “but it’s more than that. There is a certain closeness to God at the top of a mountain.”

“You experience two things there,” he continued. “You experience the grandeur of God and the greatness of his creation — how beautiful it is.

“And you also get a sense of how small you are in comparison with the immensity of God’s creation. Yet, in your minute size, relatively speaking, you feel very close to God. You know that he loves you even in the midst of this immense creation of his.

“To be up in the mountains at night when there aren’t any city lights, you see the skies so full of stars you realize how huge the universe is. To me, it’s a very religious experience.”

Father Pennings would like to hike in the mountains again, but a lot has changed since he last strapped on his backpack. He’s not only added a few years and a few pounds, but that heart attack he had a while back doesn’t help matters any.

Not to mention the fact that his job as the new archdiocesan chancellor keeps him tremendously busy.

Still, he’d like to give backpacking another try.

“Especially since my heart attack, I don’t know if I could make it up to where I used to go, or at the same pace,” said Father Pennings. “I’d probably have to take it a little easy and get back in shape. But I’d still like to do it someday — probably a little less aggressively than I used to.”

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