Infusing Outdoor Adventures with Theology of the Body

Jen Messing

by Jen Messing (co-chair of NCSC 2018 Core Team)

Having been raised in the city of Minneapolis, I am very much at home with the urban bustle. But I was also raised with a balance that I recognize to be unique: a full month of every childhood summer was spent on the border of Minnesota and Canada at our family cabin.

And a genuine cabin it was: no roads, electricity, phone, or running water. As a girl who always listened to music, called friends daily, and didn’t leave the house without curling her hair, one would think I dreaded that month away from “civilization.” In reality, I never stopped excitedly anticipating each return trip; and the strong impact on my body and soul remains evident as an adult.

The playground God provided includes the lake for swimming, canoeing, kayaking or waterskiing; the woods for hiking, hide-and-go-seek-tag or obstacle courses; and the rocks for scrambling, sitting with a book or lying on our backs.

Inevitably, even with family all around, there were pockets of quiet. It was in that quiet of the woods that I learned to simply BE with God. My senses soared as I gazed at the wonder of creation, listened to the wind blow through the trees, smelled the sweet air, felt the sun and the water on my skin, sat by the fire with my family. It was there, as a teenager, that I said to God in that silence:

“I suppose I could actually talk to You…”

As a disclaimer, I must say this is not an assertion that a return to nature can or should replace physical churches, the gathering of communities, or formal prayers. I do recognize, however, that God intended to direct our eyes to Himself through His original cathedral (a.k.a. all the beauty of the earth) and that my time in the woods gave God an opportunity to intimately draw me in. The woods are where I learned to receive His most simple gifts–in body and soul–even before I started comprehending the glory of union I was receiving in the Eucharist.

The Theology of the Body stands on the basic premise that we are made in the image of God. To teach us what that means, God deigned that we in our bodies–and all creation around us–would be a set of analogies and glimpses into Himself. Creative energy, order, beauty (and the five senses to pick up on it), intellect that operates on a different plane than the animals, the freedom to love, body-soul unity, desires for love, and timelessness all describe the way God intended us to be while simultaneously showing us some insight about the Trinity.

In our culture, Beauty has been twisted and silence is all too rare. We don’t take time to acknowledge God and we avoid the big questions. For many, there is a gap between the physical and spiritual realms–one is attended to while the other is brushed aside. It has been my experience–especially with electronics invading every second of our time–that unplugging and heading to the woods is the best remedy (of course, second to Mass and Eucharistic adoration) for remembering who God is, who we are created to be as body-soul persons, and how we are called to love like God loves.

Hopefully it goes without saying that we must remain conscious and participate in this great story for which God created us. So where to go with such insights? In 2002, I began giving talks on the Theology of the Body to help people of all ages know who they are and why they are here. Around the same time, I started leading camping trips to state and national parks with youth and young adults under the patronage of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. In 2012, I started my 501(c)3, Into the Deep, to tie the two worlds together.

If you are intrigued by the fusion of outdoor adventures and Theology of the Body insight, this summer’s Into the Deep (I.D.) Retreat for adults will consist of hiking at Isle Royale National Park off the Northern Minnesota coast of Lake Superior from June 10-15, following the National Catholic Singles Conference. A few spots are still available and all the details can be found here.

Jen Messing has an undergraduate degree in Social Work, a Master of Theological Studies from Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology, a 24-day course under her belt from NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and is pursuing a certificate through the Theology of the Body Institute. Learn more here: