I awoke each morning to the sound of nature. Birds were singing in unison throughout the valley, while squirrels, scurrying through leaves and sticks, chased each other up and down trees. Each morning, elk would visit the river located about five hundred feet from our campsite, while eagles glided overhead.
I was surrounded as far as I could see by enormous snow-capped mountains. Trees, rivers and giant boulders filled the countryside. There was not a trace of civilization anywhere. At times I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. It was, without a doubt, the most spectacular scenery I had ever witnessed.
We began each day promptly at 7am. The day’s activities included mountain biking, hiking, fishing, rafting, and swimming. If we were lucky, and our guide had the proper equipment, he we would take us rock climbing for a few hours in the late afternoon. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, we returned to our camp exhausted, only to find a feast prepared over an open fire waiting for us.
A few months earlier, some friends of mine, realizing I needed a break from the city, graciously paid for me to spend a week with them on vacation in Colorado. “It would be rejuvenating,” my friend Mike said, “and refreshing. Besides, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to spend a week of vacation.” He was right. It was the perfect scenario in the perfect location and yet I was miserable.
Even though I love spending time outdoors and spent many hours mountain biking and swimming, there was something different about this adventure. The difference, I discovered, was me. As a teenager, I would go hiking and camping in the woods because I was naturally attracted to the quiet beauty of nature. Yet on a deeper level, I went to the woods in search of its source. Nature, for me, was a sign pointing beyond itself. Rather than stop at the sign, my entire being yearned for that Reality to which the sign was pointing. If I followed the sign frequently, I reasoned, I would eventually go beyond it.
Once I consciously made the decision to follow Jesus and returned wholeheartedly to the Church, my focus shifted from a purely exterior journey to the discovery of an interior one. Even though I still visited beautiful sites and had fun with friends, I began to spend more time alone in my room, a church, or some other quiet place where I could read, pray and spend time in silence. Suddenly, without going anywhere, I was traveling to much deeper places than I ever thought imaginable.
When I began this vacation in Colorado I had been a Franciscan for twelve years and a priest for three. I was accustomed to several hours of prayer and silence each day. My friends, who had only good intentions, believed I would have more fun if I did more activities. Hence, I had no time, and ironically no space, for prayer. Every morning I celebrated Mass and had about ten minutes of prayer afterwards before the events of the day began.
By late morning, after already hiking and swimming for several hours, all I desired was a few moments of stillness. My heart and my mind were touched deeply by the wonder that surrounded me, yet it wasn’t enough. In order to truly appreciate and experience the beauty of this place, I had to move beyond its signs to its source. Without this deeper contact, the joy that was available in this moment became threatened. Unfortunately, there was no time. The next event was waiting for us.
As evening arrived, even though I was surrounded by friends who loved me, a deep feeling of loneliness overwhelmed me. At camp, my friends sang songs, told jokes and recounted childhood memories. I appreciated their presence and enjoyed listening to them, yet I felt a deep void in our group. Without prayer in my day, I felt alienated, not only from other people, but also from the beauty that surrounded me. Each one of my friends was a devout Christian, yet nobody appeared interested in making space for prayer. Was something wrong with me, I asked myself? Here I am in this beautiful place on a free vacation and I am not happy. Was I not grateful? Was I being selfish? Was I being too religious?
Despite my best efforts to alter my mood, I was unsuccessful. As the days progressed, my sadness only increased. The more activities we did, the worse I felt. On our last morning in Colorado one of my friends suggested we do another long hike before going to the airport. “Please,” I sighed, “I’ve had enough. Can we just go to the airport?”
My friends were shocked by my abrupt response. “Is everything ok?”
“Yes…, I’m sorry. I’m just tired and don’t want to miss my flight,” I said.
As I boarded the plane to fly home, I felt confused and frustrated. Providentially, I had the entire row on the plane to myself. Finally, I thought, space simply to be alone with God. I stared out the window and began to speak to God from the depths of my heart. As I began my evening prayer I felt a deep peace within my soul. “Only in God is my soul at rest” (Psalms 62:1). How often had I prayed those words, yet now they began to hold a deeper meaning for me.
I spent the rest of the flight in silence, reading Scripture, speaking to God and just listening. While we were beginning our descent into Newark airport, I felt a wave of consolation overwhelm me. I wasn’t being ungrateful, I realized, or selfish. I just desired a different journey, one that would take me deeper, to a place beyond this world, where my soul could find the space it needed and the rest it desired.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR