“I felt so at peace.” We commonly hear this phrase each night as we debrief the day with students. At the JPII Outdoor Lab, our mission is to lead youth to Christ through the creation and the sacraments. Students are not allowed to have phones, laptops, or any other form of technology. Many students are apprehensive at first. As students leave camp, they often don’t want to turn their phones back on.
There is growing recognition, in both the secular and religious sectors, that time spent outdoors is critical to a child’s growth and development. Nature deficit disorder is a hot topic. Time spent indoors and in front of devices dulls our senses and can create tension and anxiety. We were created to live fully and to be fully alive. Time outside allows us—adults and children alike—to be pushed a little past our comfort zone. We explore in the physical world—climb mountains, scramble up rocks—and spiritually—by not staying complacent but asking hard questions. Time spent outdoors teaches us to think critically, and ultimately to be more human.
There is an increasing body of research showing that bridging nature deficit can improve physical mental, and we have seen how it improves spiritual health. At camp, students are outside most of the day. They breathe the crisp mountain air, feel the sunshine on their faces, get dirt underneath their fingernails, examine the micro elements in the grass and rivers—and the macro elements like the massive mountains and powerful storms surrounding them. Being immersed in this beauty awakens our souls to the truth that a powerful God does exist and is forever calling us into a deeper relationship with himself.
Whether it’s a three-day long outdoor lab program or a week at summer camp, students are refreshed by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, and their hearts are increasingly opened by the sheer fact that they are outside and free from distractions. They explore their faith and themselves while simultaneously exploring the outdoors. Many of our students try their first s’more at JPII Outdoor Lab. Some have never been on a hike. Others try rock climbing or paddle boarding for the first time. Even more, some have never gazed up at the stars in sheer wonder. It is this wonder and amazement that inspires us to act. This exploration, amazement, and wonder are why we go to camp.
“Let all creation help you to praise God.
When you are walking alone, listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers, the trees, the shrubs, the sky, the sun and the whole world.
Notice how they preach to you a sermon full of love, of praise of God, and how they invite you to proclaim the greatness of the one who has given them being.”
— St. Paul of the Cross
I came to better know the truth about myself and to more fully understand God’s direction for my life by doing two things: being active in the outdoors, and spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. This was not necessarily intentional, but it happened. In seeking the true happiness and true peace that we are all made for, I encountered God’s presence through creation, and then perhaps more deeply in adoration.
If you’ve ever been to Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Michigan, you know the beauty of that great lake which changes color with light and season, and the lush green forests and trails that with each step take you closer to their creator and ours. Here in Colorado, we know of the first sunlight of the day on the mountains, and the moonset over them amidst a purple sky.
Beauty naturally draws us out of ourselves and brings our minds to something other than, greater than ourselves. And if we really listen, it invites us deeper into ourselves. It speaks to us, as created, of a creator. The beauty we see and experience in creation tells of the goodness of God. It speaks to our hearts of his love. The God who passionately pursues us uses creation to draw us into relationship with himself. Who is this God, creator of the beauty of the mountains, warm sunshine, and the expansive night sky? We want to know this beauty and be known by it. We want to taste it, take it in. We want to possess it and be possessed by it.
The deepest longings of every human heart for beauty beyond description, for perfect, infinite love, are satisfied in Jesus alone. In Him we come to know the creator of the universe and we come to know our true selves.
At the JPII Outdoor Lab, our mission is to lead young people to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through creation and the sacraments. We accomplish this by providing the opportunity, the time and place for an encounter. Founded on the basis of Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, we know that the God who created us for relationship with himself desires to make himself known. Indeed, he is always making himself known! In this Christmas season, we remember that the God who created majestic mountains and fiery sunsets is the same God who lay defenseless in a manger, completely dependent on his holy mother Mary and foster-father Joseph. We do not ascend to him. He comes to us. God incarnate, the baby in the straw, who walked among us, comes daily to us in the beauty around us and will never stop drawing us to himself. Through creation and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, we know God is truly and fully present and continues to come to us in physical, tangible ways.
Our God has chosen the human road. At the JPII Outdoor Lab, we invite young people and adults alike to open their hearts to encounter Jesus Christ and as they continue to journey with him step by step, with each sunrise and moonset, we pray that their daily lives will be transformed by the power of his love.