Big Bend Lenten Wilderness Retreat MARCH 2017

A fellowship of nine trekked into the forbidding desolation of the Texas desert in hopes of discovering what they must conquer: self, weakness, doubt. Taking Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy as their guide, and with the intercession of Saint Faustina and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, this fellowship was a tightly woven cord of grace.

“...He that comes along with me,

burdened with the weight of Adam’s flesh,

though eager to ascend, is slow at climbing.”

Purgatorio, Canto XI

We got out to stretch our legs on the prairie, weeks in advance

Grocery shopping, a midnight airport run to pick up one of our hikers, and a peaceful campsite by the Rio Grande after an overnight drive.

The Cottonwood Campsite was a welcome respite after a long night and day
Guess what our #1 expense was?

Day One

Pride & Humility

We began our day with Mass, then set off on our explorations with a day hike up the famous Santa Helena canyon of the Rio Grande.

Left wall, Mexico; right wall, 'Merica.
In the distance, above the river, are the peaks we aimed to climb.

After filling our bellies and water bottles, it was time to hit the trail.

No idea what they're getting themselves into...

We made a quick camp beside the trail just after sunset, ate our dinners, and discussed our reading on Pride & Humility for the day.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

We marched off to our tents & steeled ourselves for a long hike the next day.

"Give us this day our daily bread

the manna without which he who struggles all the more

goes backward through this bitter wilderness..."

Purgatorio, Canto XI

Perhaps you were expecting room service?

DAY TWO

Envy & Mercy

Alas! Because your neighbor is advancing, will you fall back? Ah! If you would love in him the virtues which you do not find in yourself, you would share in them through charity; the profit of his labors would also become yours.

Venerable Louis of Granada, OP

We rose at 5 a.m. to put as many miles behind us as we could before the heat of day. We broke camp and hiked under the stars for an hour or two before daybreak. Tiny glittering lights would appear along the trail in the light of our headlamps--only to become the jeweled eyes of tiny spiders observing us in silence as we passed beside them.

Sunrise along the trail

Trailside breakfast

Feet begin to blister, but spirits stay high.
L to R: Collin, Elizabeth, Asaph, Anna, Taylor, Haley, Sam, Erin, Father Nick Blaha
Some trailside encouragement... a reminder to share what little shade could be found.
Searching for a place to pitch our tents as the day cooled off

Did you say "4-man tent?" I think you meant FIVE WOMAN TENT

Room to breathe

No more fitting end to such a day than the Mass:

E la sua voluntade e nostra pace...

In His will is our peace.

When it's all said and done, what envy is about is this: doubt about how much we are loved... or doubt that we are being loved in the way we need to be loved. When envy strikes, it is time to stop looking at whatever spikes rancor in us, and to look instead at the One who is always looking at us with a gaze of love.

Father Peter Cameron, OP

DAY THREE

Wrath & Meekness

Will a wise man fill his stomach with burning heat?

Job 15:2

Sting 'em!

A pre-dawn visit to a nearby cache to restock our water and food supplies added enormous weight to our packs--not a welcome development, as this was going to be our hardest hike. Nine miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain meant we would be pushed to our limits.

Limits? Are you crazy?

Slowly we rose above the desert floor, racing the sun up the wall of the valley:

Looking back over the ground we'd covered
Breaks varied widely in duration and intensity

We pitched camp on our mountaintop campsite and rested in the afternoon heat:

The Big Bend Whitetail strolled among us nonchalantly
Surely it wasn't the socks drying in the tree branches that intrigued them?

After a little exploring...

... we returned to the altar to render thanks to the God who had so abundantly blessed us.

We ate our dinner and enjoyed the waning of the day into starlight.
He who is not angry, when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices. It fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.

Saint John Chrysostom

DAY FOUR

Sloth & Zeal

“O strength, why do you melt away?” I said

several times over to myself, for now

it seemed my legs were turning into lead.

Canto XVII, Purgatorio

The ascent to sunrise on Emory Peak

There were no complaints as we rose from our hard beds at 4:15 a.m. It was to be our ascent to the highest point in the park. No one could have accused any of us of slothful faintheartedness...

After our descent, we did some exploring, and enjoyed an evening with dinner, sunset, and a far-off rain shower all wrapped into one.

Thus you may understand that love alone

is the true seed of every merit in you,

and of all acts for which you must atone.

Purgatorio, Canto XVI

DAY FIVE

Avarice & Belonging

No pain upon the hill is more severe.

For as our eyes were never raised on high

but fixed themselves on things of earth,

here justice humbles them to touch the ground.

Purgatorio, Canto XXII

One step closer to home
A final look back to Emory Peak

After two days atop the mountain, it was time to begin our homeward journey.

A visit to the hot springs to soak out the sweat & soreness helped us ease into a relaxing night in a primitive roadside campsite. Dinner & discussion followed.

Humans can raise the world of nature to eternity. --Kohak
The world humans master, though they may claim to own it, does not become their own, belonging to them in the intimate sense in which a father belongs to a son or a husband to a wife. The possessed world becomes a dead world in our hands, lifeless and meaningless.... Humans are justified by the power of their love to bring the world alive, to give things the love, care, and use they need for their fulfillment.

Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars

DAY SIX

Glust (gluttony/lust) & Chastity

A quick photo-op at the main thoroughfare out of the Park gave us a chance to flag down a total stranger who proved to be the right person for the job of a final photo to document our visit.
Sad to leave, but happy to be with such a great crew.

Our drive home was brightened by a night spent in Dallas with a generous family of 8 that found room for 9 more that were in need of room & board.

We darkened their towels, ate their pizza, and basked in the glory of family life at its best:

The Cotters and the Big Benders (minus Erin--we should've shot this before she left!)
As the Father has chosen you, Mary, to be his immaculate child, Joseph’s spouse, and the mother of his beloved Son, so we choose you this day to be the queen and mother of our whole family, and we consecrate to you our souls and our bodies, all that we do and all that we have, without exception. O Mary, wrap us in your maternal mercy. Teach us to love Jesus and the Father always more, and in and through them to love one another in the Holy Spirit, discovering one another ever more profoundly in the light of Jesus, respecting one another, and choosing one another each day with a more divine and simple love. Grant that each of us fulfills the Father’s will each day through a more personal gift of ourselves, so that our entire family may bear witness in the midst of the world to the love of Jesus, victorious over evil. Amen.

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