Why prayer comes easy to a backpacker on a hike
When the 13th editor in chief of America, Andrew Christiansen, S.J., died last week at the age of 77, he was remembered by his former coworkers and lifelong colleagues alike as a consummate scholar and teacher, as well as a skilled writer who could make complicated issues in moral theology or foreign policy accessible to a more mainstream audience. We at Americaalso remember him as a kind and caring boss, someone who took the helm at a difficult time in our history and guided the magazine through turbulent waters.
Christiansen was rightly recognized as an insightful moral theologian and was often sought out for his expertise on foreign policy issues and the Middle East. However, as James Martin, S.J., noted in a tribute in America, “Drew’s vast knowledge was worn lightly,” and his quiet demeanor could be misleading. “At more than one editorial meeting, the topic would turn to questions of just war,” Martin remembered. “The rest of the editors would chat a bit and then Drew would open his mouth, and out would pour a stream of knowledge, expertly guiding us through some history, some Vatican documents, some personal conversations he had had with participants.”
Drew Christiansen, S.J.: “The days were lengthening. Daylight itself seemed brighter. The sap was rising in the trees, and with it I felt the wanderlust rising in me.”
Another facet of Drew’s personality that did not get as much attention in last week’s many tributes was his love for nature and for hiking in the wilderness. Drew wrote on a wide number of subjects for America, but I think his best writing—his most evocative and elegant—was found in his occasional reflections for the magazine on finding God in nature, even if that “nature” was just a stroll through Central Park or a hike in the Catskills.
The opening lines of his 2004 cover story for America, “Into the High Country,” read like a cross between Tolstoy and Jack London: “The days were lengthening. Daylight itself seemed brighter. The sap was rising in the trees, and with it I felt the wanderlust rising in me.”
As a reader, you’re all in for what comes next—but it’s not what you might expect: a thoughtful essay on why prayer comes easy to the backpacker. Christiansen reflected on his experiences of doing a yearly wilderness retreat with friends and colleagues at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., often hiking up into the High Sierras, and how fruitful it was for his prayer life.
Though God’s grace is always there, even in steamy urban climes, no retreat house or monastery can compare. Why does the wilderness retreat work so well? Over the years I have speculated that the exercise, the sparse diet (mostly freeze-dried foods), the fresh air and sunshine, and the solitude all free up the imagination for prayer.
The wilderness brings other special encounters too, he added, including in his case a long afternoon in communion with a doe and her two playful fawns. “William Faulkner knew of what he wrote in his novella The Bear, in which an old Indian guide tells the young Ike McCaslin that to see the legendary bear Old Ben, he must leave behind his rifle and compass and walk into the deepest part of the forest,” Christiansen wrote. “In a contemplative mood, with no weapons and in no hurry to move on, the wilderness retreatant acquires a special familiarity with God’s creatures. For others they are legends; for us they are annual encounters.”
Drew Christiansen, S.J.: “The wilderness retreatant acquires a special familiarity with God’s creatures. For others they are legends; for us they are annual encounters.”
Christiansen found himself somewhat widowed from the wilderness when he returned to New York City in 2002 after 30 years away. “Used to sunshine and skyscapes, I found that even on a sunny day my skyward view from America House was blocked by high-rises,” he wrote in 2003. “Lights burn in my room by day as well as by night.” (It is true: The sun rises at 10 a.m. in the canyons of midtown and sets at 3 p.m.)
He found a respite in the heart of the city. “A tree-hugging, backpacking ecophile, I longed for daylight the way wanderers in the desert long for water. Fortunately for me Central Park is only three blocks away,” he wrote. “The park has become for me, as for so many, a haven where I can breathe the light, smell the earth and listen to birdsong. For office workers, I discovered, it is such a sanctuary that at lunch hour most speak in hushed tones.”
“When I lived in California and wandered the Bay Area hills and the Sierra high country, I used to feel enormous gratitude for those who, like John Muir, had the foresight to preserve regional parks, like Mt. Tamalpais, and the great national parks, like Yosemite,” Christiansen wrote. “In Central Park, gratitude sweeps over me for Frederick Law Olmsted, his colleagues and supporters. Olmsted, 19th-century America’s pre-eminent landscape architect, was for 20 years the principal force in building Central Park.”
It is in these and other nature pieces that Drew’s own voice comes through most clearly, where the joy and wonder present in his heart is communicated most clearly on the page. And Drew’s concluding line of “Into the High Country” perhaps offers the perfect coda to his peripatetic life, one well-lived: “As I savor memories of the past wilderness retreats, my wanderlust brings a foretaste of graces yet to come.”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
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James T. Keane