Finding God’s wisdom while dog sledding . . .

Categories: Around the Diocese

My winter eco-spirituality retreat with other St. Ben’s alumnae was one of wine, wisdom and foot warmers

February 28, 2014, edition
By Ellen Capeechi

I was raised to believe that since the glory of God is man fully alive, then the more we stretch toward our potential the more we glorify our Creator. So, my retirement last summer meant new opportunities to discover blessings beyond my comfort zone.

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Ellen Capecchi hugs two of the Alaskan huskies that provide the power for a portion of the Eco-Spirituality Dog Sledding Retreat the retiree took part in with nine other alumnae of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. Photo courtesy of Kristin Lyman

Last fall our son took me kayaking in Lake Superior, and our daughter took me to zumba class at the local fitness center.

This month, while my family watched the Sochi Olympics on television, I sought adventure dog sledding in Ely, Minn.

The College of St. Benedict-sponsored eco-spirituality retreat lured 10 alumnae up near the Canadian border. We Bennies, from as far away as L.A. and Alaska, challenged our physical endurance and studied Mother Nature’s winter lessons.

We shared foot warmers and toilet paper over trails by day and heart-warming stories and wisdom over wine by night.

A shepherding role

Guides young enough to be our daughters assumed the parental role. We were required to display for their scrutiny the layers we planned to wear in temperatures ranging from -9 to -27.

They confiscated my long johns: Cotton is rotten.

They wouldn’t let us hit the trails until all our bottles were filled with hot water.

While sledding over the lake and through the woods, they reminded us to drink, since extra energy expended put us at risk for dehydration. After our campfire lunch, they handed us toilet paper and told us to find a tree even if we felt no urge, because precious body heat is lost warming body fluids.

Our guides assumed a shepherding role, cross country skiing around our five sleds. Hours earlier, we had chanted lyrics attributed to St. Patrick’s breastplate: “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ at my side.” Now I conjured up that melody as our guides encircled our caravan with expertise and protection.

Minnesota’s winter of 2013-14, the most severe in three decades, unexpectedly shut down schools and universities, businesses and highways. For four days in Ely, we intentionally sought retreat in an environment ideal for spiritual growth.

A chaplain led us in daily reflections and fed us nuggets of Joyce Rupp’s poetry. Our assignment was to write an antiphon expressing our souls’ response to winter. My attempt at poetry yielded:

“Oh come, season of dormancy/ illusion of passivity/ in reality sustaining the core/ while new extremities evolve/Come.”

Quiet before the storm

After an exhilarating day of sledding we reconvened inside our cozy cabin to share our stories.

Respecting confidences revealed around a glowing fire reminded me of the scene described in an old devotional. A harried homeowner dashing through the hallway catches a glimpse of Our Lord in her den. Leaning back in an easy chair by the fireplace, he poses a pastoral invitation. Silently, he awaits the day she’ll make time to join him there.

That serene image of welcome was shattered by the scene of riotous anticipation as we approached dozens of dogs yelping and leaping to greet us.

Our host at Wintergreen Lodge, internationally acclaimed explorer Paul Schurke (St. John’s University ’77), credited the dogs’ “indomitable spirit” as providing motivation for his guests and staff to pursue dog sled excursions.

Barking as rapidly and loudly as possible and, though hooked to a lead chain, jumping over one another, their enthusiasm could not be contained.

We had been instructed in basic handling of sled dogs but nothing prepared us for this overwhelming noise, echoing deep in snow-packed woods.

However, the instant they began to pull our sleds, the dogs quieted.

Canadian Inuit dogs are bred to work. They live to pull. Upon hearing the command “hike,” the excited dogs totally focused upon the task at hand and ceased barking. When engaged in mushing, they embodied an active form of fulfillment.

In silence.

Something to remember

This is my retreat’s takeaway.

Can we follow the dogs’ example?

We’re wired to love and serve God and neighbor. When we’re engaged in meaningful activity to that end, do we exude contentment?

Wintergreen guests have told Schurke they feel they’re a million miles away from the work-a-day world, shedding their frustrations and anxieties to just be, in the north woods.

While gripping the sled’s handle, viewing dramatic vistas of a winter wonderland, our minds were so full of nature’s beauty there wasn’t space for clutter like: “I ought to lose 10 pounds before the wedding,” “We need a dry weekend so I can seal-coat the driveway” or “Where’s that tax form for next week’s appointment?”

Leaving a retreat environment and returning to everyday lives, our challenge is to be present to the goodness at hand there.

Finding fulfillment in building God’s kingdom, we’ll cease our grumblings. And we just might start whistling while we work.

Ellen Capecchi, a 1977 alumna of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, is a wife, mother and grandmother. She’s a member of St. Patrick Parish in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.