Outdoor retreats affirm participants’ human dignity and divine image

| Jessica Weinberger | July 7, 2016 | 0 Comments

Father Michael Wolfbauer of the Diocese of St. Cloud prepares Mass outdoors during a 2014 retreat in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Courtesy Jen Messing

The marvel of God’s hand

In high school, Jen Messing would spend one month each summer exploring the woods, glacial rock and scenic overlooks surrounding her family’s cabin on Crane Lake nestled on the edge of Voyageurs National Park within the Superior National Forest.

With no electricity or plumbing, the remote cabin experience forced Jen Messing, now 43, to venture into the wilderness. In the quiet stillness of northern Minnesota, she tuned into the wind blowing through the trees, the waves crashing on the shore, and God’s voice.

“That was my first time remembering what it was like to really pray,” she said.

Inspired by her early experience of prayer in the outdoors, Messing, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, founded the non-profit Into the Deep in 2012. With the mission of facilitating true understanding of each person’s identity, reason for being and dignity as someone with a body and soul made in the image of God, Messing leads indoor and outdoor retreats, seminars, study groups and presentations for youth and adults.

Into the Deep retreat participants experience the outdoors in the context of the theology of the body — St. John Paul II’s teaching on love, life and human sexuality introduced in Genesis and summarized by the verse “man and woman he created them.”

Understanding what the body teaches about its Creator, the meaning of love and the purpose of life are not easy concepts to grasp. But Messing, who has a master’s degree in theological studies from Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida, explains the Church’s teachings in the midst of outdoor prayer and reflection.

At a scenic outlook in Voyageurs National Park, she’ll encourage the participants to find their own secluded spot to talk informally to God. On a hike in California’s Yosemite National Park, she’ll space out the participants to quiet the conversation and turn the focus to God’s creation around them.

Jen Messing hikes in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains during her NOLS Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educator course in 2008. Courtesy Jen Messing

Jen Messing hikes in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains during her NOLS Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educator course in 2008. Courtesy Jen Messing

Focus on God

You won’t find a smartphone or tablet on an Into the Deep retreat. Participants are required to leave electronics behind, so they can immerse themselves in the experience. A priest usually joins each group to offer the sacrament of reconciliation, eucharistic adoration and daily Mass using a travel-size monstrance and Mass kit.

Free from the noise of everyday life, Messing, a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Pacific Northwest Outdoor Educator course, watches as participants begin to quiet their minds and take in the natural world around them.

“There is this incredible reality that this is God’s creation and this is his playground,” Messing said. “God takes care of all the entertainment because he gives us the sunset, the winds blowing through the trees, the storms and all of this water to play in.”

Justin Svec, 36, a mechanical engineer and father of six from Westfield, Indiana, signed up for an Into the Deep retreat to New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 2014. The volunteer high school youth minister and Bible study leader hoped to reclaim his outdoorsy side that he honed as a Boy Scout growing up in Alaska.

What is theology of the body?Between 1979 and 1984, St. John Paul II dedicated 129 reflections during his weekly Wednesday audiences to the Church’s teaching on the human person, human sexuality, the meaning of “woman” and “man,” and what that conveys about God’s love and plan for each person. The compiled teachings, complemented by his other writings, has become known as the theology of the body. According to “The Theology of the Body Explained” (Pauline Books, 2002) by Christopher West, a well-known writer on the topic, the gist of the teaching is that “the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”

“Encountering God in creation strengthened my sense of communion with nature,” Svec said, recalling a natural water slide and Mass on top of the mountains. “It’s easy to get locked in a life of commute, work, commute, mow the lawn, eat and sleep, so it is good to get a literal breath of fresh air to reconnect.”

As he became more confident in each physical challenge, Svec’s understanding of the theology of the body began to move from his head to his heart.

“Hard work and sweat, mixed with time to contemplate, is powerful,” he said.

Maggie Havlicek and Abby Kugler, both 12 and classmates at Holy Cross Catholic School in Webster, participated in a trip to Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth as fifth-graders. As the group of five girls hiked through the park, they prayed, made campsite meals and admired the stars’ panorama each night.

For Kugler, the shared roles and responsibilities combined with the group’s care and encouragement made it feel like a family. For Havlicek, memories of nights playing games in the tent by flashlight still make her smile, and the basic teachings of the theology of the body remain close to her heart.

“I remember Jen teaching me that I am unrepeatable — that God made me different than anyone else,” said Havlicek, a parishioner of St. Nicholas in Elko New Market.

With four trips planned for 2016, as well as a study group and other talks, Messing hopes that she can expand from a one-person operation to a broader team with interns who assist with event logistics and spread the theology of the body’s message.

She envisions one day leading 10 retreats each year, continuing to use the outdoors to share those messages in an understandable and relatable way. This opportunity is available to each person, she said, by opening minds and hearts to encounter God in everyday life, especially in nature.

“It’s not to replace church, but it’s an opportunity to see the original cathedral that God put here,” Messing said about her retreats. “This is the original cathedral that God appointed to himself through all of this beauty and quiet, and this is where he’s inviting you to talk to him.”




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