A small group of students experienced God’s presence in the vastness of nature over intersession on the Desert Experience retreat. Sophomores Kaitlyn Davis and Karissa Barbarevech as well as first years Andrew Isopi and Matthew Andres journeyed with Campus Ministers Fred Mercadante and Mollie Vita to the Death Valley desert in Nevada Jan. 23 – 27.
Mercadante designed the Desert Experience retreat after visiting Death Valley with friends several years ago. He had felt spiritually moved by the environment. After he led the Born to Be Wild retreat, which also involves an experience with nature, he and Campus Ministry wanted to design a more drastic trip over winter. Because of the hot desert climate, Death Valley fit perfectly.
The structure of the retreat related directly to the environment. Each day took on a different theme depending upon nature. For example, the day the group spent on the sand dunes revolved around Christ’s temptation in the desert, and on the day the retreatants explored the salt flats, they discussed perspective. Davis said the environment allowed them to “relate what [they were] talking about to what [they were] seeing,” and Barbarevech agreed that the surroundings “really helped put [the group] into the story”.
The desolate desert environment helped foster a sense of solitude, peace and serenity for the retreatants. Mercadante emphasized its contribution to the “centering prayer technique” applied throughout the weekend. Of this technique, he said “it is a way to get you out of your head. It clears space within you, eliminates anxiety and leaves you open to God and contemplative prayer.” It helped them feel “completely alone,” Barbarevech said.
The retreatants agreed that going into the retreat, they had no idea what to expect but were enthusiastic and eager. The trip, which consisted of a flight followed by a five-hour drive, brought them through Las Vegas and several tiny towns before they arrived at Death Valley. Their physical challenges included camping in the cold at night, hiking through an icy, snowy mountain and even falling on cacti and learning to remove thorns from each other, but they agreed that the trip was emotionally challenging at first as well. Because the group was so small, they had to adjust quickly to sharing their personal thoughts.
“The challenges made it so much better, especially overcoming them together,” Andres said.
The four students who attended had an incredibly positive response to the experience.
“I felt lighter,” Barbarevech said. “I feel like everything’s going to be fine.”
“It came at a really good time for me … it really put my life on track,” Davis said.
Campus Ministry hopes to continue holding this retreat next year, with this year’s attendees acting as leaders. They plan to make changes based upon evaluations from this year and, hopefully, extend the invitation to other Jesuit universities. The retreat is open to all, regardless of experience with hiking. Isopi said he had not previously been camping, but still benefitted from the experience. Mercadante hopes to attract more students to the retreat next year.
“Don’t be afraid of the intensity,” Mercadante said. “It was worth it,” Andres said.
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