A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Worshipping in the Wilderness

Pat Barrett

by Pat Barrett

To be able to worship Our Creator, Jesus Christ, in the wilds of New Zealand is an extraordinary and unique experience of what it means to be both Catholic and human.

Having tramped, climbed, and explored the wild and not-so-wild regions of this country for almost 40 years, from when I was in my early teens to the present day, when I recently completed a week’s foray into the Hooker-Landsborough Wilderness Area near Haast in South Westland - one of the more extreme parts of the country,

I can truly say that being able to assist at Holy Mass in such a breath-stopping landscape is humbling and manifestly awesome in the truest sense.

In such a place I can sing with the Psalmist, “Alleluia! Praise Yahweh from the heavens, praise him in the heights. Praise him all his angels, praise him all his host!” (Psalm 148:1-2)

I have experienced the Mass in mountain huts; once with a non-believer present, which introduces the evangelistic merits of such an event, in valleys, by rivers, and in the forest. Sometimes with myself the only ‘congregation’ others times with tramping club members, when Mass was an important part of any extended trip into the hills and priests regularly accompanied groups on their Easter and Christmas trips, and at other times too. These priests were fit and easily became life-long friends with many of those on the tramp, sharing not only the sublime beauty of the Mass with us but also the hardships and endeavours of the trip.

The most notable of these Masses have been in the open, on a magnificent evening with a lowering sun glinting on glaciers beneath the mighty bastions of the Southern Alps. Still, with not a sound, save for that of a distant river, its roar providing a sense of amplitude to the scene and the Mass, then at the elevation of the host, during consecration, to my mind enters a pervading sense of wonder and an imponderable thought - that this insignificant wafer, held aloft by the priest, is responsible for the creation and fashioning of our world, and that, in an instant, at the command of God.

To consider that these mountains, ridges, forests, rivers, and glaciers, where I now kneel - mighty and powerful though they are, were created ex nihilo by the Word. It’s pure mystery to the believer; total impossibility to the skeptic.

It would be easy for some to begin the worship of creation itself in such a setting, a fact of life for many pagan religions and indeed for the neo-paganism of today which seeks to worship nature as god. Many are the times I have heard others say, “This is my spiritual home. The mountains are such a presence, to be held in awe – sacred.” Yet how much mightier is He who created them, God Almighty to whom all worship is due, not His creation - He alone. 

As Catholics we must order our hierarchy of values correctly with regard to worship and created things, according to the teachings of the Church, not those of pantheism, be it of an indigenous culture, or a foreign one, and we must remember that our real spiritual home is not on this earth, but in heaven with God and the saints.

Here we would do well to consider the words of Scripture, “If, charmed by their beauty, they have taken these things for gods, let them know how much the Lord of these excels them. Since the very Author of beauty has created them.” (Wisdom 13:3)

Worship of God is not the only movement of the soul in the wilderness, as here you must undertake the effort required to sustain the journey – the walk itself.

This walk can be the way of holiness, sometimes subtle, while at other times when difficulties or obstacles arise it is manifested in the recitation of prayers to allay your fears and provide comfort and sustenance for the task at hand.

Prayer for me is a large part of the way to the wild and a daily part of the tramp when I will try to offer “all my thoughts, words, and deeds”, of the trip for my family at home, and for the good of others.

When the going is especially hard, as in when it is cold, wet, tough uphill travel, or just at the end of a long day with a heavy pack and I long for the hut or camp, I will try to offer all my ‘sufferings’, small though they are, for sick friends, family, and of course the Holy Souls. There are times when I have climbed a trackless mountain, fought through steep, thick vegetation, or crossed a frigid river, and all the while trying to remember to offer these self-inflicted torments for the Holy Souls.

At such a time we can again pray with the Psalmist, “Yahweh is my strength and my shield in Him my heart trusts. You are my strong field and I trust in You completely.”(Psalm 28:7)

In a paradoxical way the very effort of the tramp itself, especially those which sap all our strength and which impose steady burdens on our shoulders, literally, in the weight of the pack, and physically and emotionally in the continued assault on the body by the very nature of the terrain through which you travel, is a striking image of the journey through life itself.

On life’s journey there are irregular and exalted highpoints – new birth, baptism, marriage, family joy, holidays, togetherness, and good health. Along with the lows - separation, poor health, mental and emotional suffering, death.

These, in a sense, can also be found on an excursion though the wilds, and especially on those trips which take us well beyond our comfort level where we can experience separation, physical suffering, health concerns and injury.

Conversely there are the high points of the tramp, corresponding to the high points of life – a mountaintop view, a riverside camp, a cosy hut with good friends, a magnificent vista, a challenging trip successfully completed.

Particularly, when climbing to a summit, with all that that entails, plus the tremendous reward at the top - the view and the sheer joy of success, there comes a powerful reminder of life’s hardships – the descent into the valley depths.

It is just not possible to live at the summit of a mountain or the ‘summits of life’. Though these latter ‘summits’ often occupy a much longer period of our time on earth they are but fleeting moments in time. Captured at great cost, savoured briefly, caressed, loved, and let go. Now the valley calls us down where the journey continues along the path of life, deep in the shadow of the mountain.

But this is no place for despair as here too the Lord is with us as we remember;

“The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows
He lets me lie.
By tranquil streams
He leads me to restore my spirit.
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits His name.
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger,
for you are at my side.”
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.” (Psalm 23:1-3)

Such is the way of life – a challenging journey, but how to attain a successful outcome, measured here in spiritual terms?

Like the tramp for which you must thoroughly prepare with physical fitness, nutritionally with good food, a pack with adequate equipment and with shelter along the way in huts or tents, so must you prepare spiritually with ‘The Way’ - Holy Mass (in the mountains for a few), the sacraments, and prayer and sacrifice for the ultimate destination of life – eternity with God.

Pat Barrett is a photo-journalist and intends to publish an NZ Scenic Scripture Calendar 2013 again this year, available by September .

Contact PO Box 20266, Christchurch 8543

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