When Leon Chartrand was in college at Miami University, he liked to spend his non-studying time running around the streets of campus and would even enter marathons as a means of satisfying his competitive soul. At least until he entered the Las Vegas Marathon. There, in the heart of Sin City, something happened. Something in his soul changed.
The trip was, for the most part, pretty miserable. The airline lost his luggage. It was incredibly hot. And, to cap it all off, the race was boring—13 miles down one flat side of the Strip and 13 miles back up the other.
Halfway through, though, Chartrand lost all interest. His hope gave out. He saw the medical attention van and flagged it down. “Take me back to my hotel,” he said. He went upstairs, packed his gear and checked out—literally and figuratively. He drove to the Grand Canyon and spent the next two nights staring at the stars.
“I had never seen the Grand Canyon before,” he says. “The stars, the silence, the sounds. The rest of my life, really, has been an ongoing attempt to understand, appreciate and savor the sense of God that I first became aware of on that trip.”
The moment led Chartrand to earn a master’s degree in theology from Xavier and a doctorate in ecology and theology from the University of Toronto. Today, he’s back at Xavier as a visiting professor of theology and trying to share with others the same soul-changing experience he had. While Xavier isn’t anywhere near the Grand Canyon, it does have enough natural resources nearby that a similar experience can be recreated. So he and professor of theology Gillian Ahlgren teamed up to create a six-mile-long canoe trip down the Little Miami River that offers first-year students a new way of understanding God, nature and themselves.
“Attuning myself to God’s presence, within me and around me, is made so much easier when I engage the beauty of nature,” says Ahlgren. “Nature is not an abstract concept. It is beauty embodied in concrete details that reinforce the mystery of the divine—the spray of colors on a single turning-leaf tree, the sound of water trickling over stones. For me, the detail is a clear, even piercing reminder of the delicate relationship between creator and creature.”
For the students, the trip is a twofold lesson in life: first the metaphorical analogy of life’s journey, how the river is constantly changing; how obstacles must be avoided; how the current changes speed. Second, how one of the foundational principles of Jesuit education—finding God in all things—is so clearly seen in nature.
“One of the first things I realized when I got on the canoe was that you’re not always in control,” says student Mark Kroger. “Within the first three minutes, our canoe had already done a 360-degree rotation. After that, I learned that sometimes the river will throw you a curveball and you just have to go with the flow.”
Realizing students have a tendency to, well, act like students, Ahlgren and Chartrand instructed them to spend the last half of the journey in silence, simply using their senses to observe all that surrounded them.
“We’ve all heard birds sing before,” says student Keith Topper, “but to really stop and listen and notice their sounds and the melodies they create affected me deeply. It really allowed me to think about the beauty of nature and the reality that God created everything that my eyes see. The physical world that we live in is a constant reminder of God’s presence and power in our lives.”
“I noticed about five or six turtles and one blue heron that I otherwise might have missed,” says another one of the students on the trip, Tom Ohlman. “It made me realize that God’s grace is everywhere around us; we just don’t take the time to notice.”
A second river trip is planned for the spring with a new crop of first-year students. If all goes well, the experience could be an annual event.
“Never before did I think that a simple river could teach me so much,” says student Alex Pierce. “The river and the environment in which it existed proved to me that there is a distinct harmony in the world. Everything is linked together in this basic, natural way. That continues to stun me.”