Hillbilly Catechesis: The Wilderness as an Act of Formation

Cover Photo: Holy Spirit Preparatory School students and parents on a recent trip in the Cohutta Wilderness, with Mr. Don Hoyer.

From an age too young for me to recall, I was imbued with a distinctly Catholic imagination. This imagination was informed profoundly by my experience in two great cathedrals. One was built in my hometown by the generation of immigrants who brought my grandmother’s family from Sicily to Appalachia. The other was heaved up by mighty forces and eroded into shape on a timescale I struggle to comprehend.

The Cathedrals of My Childhood

The first of these is The Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston, West Virginia. Sacred Heart was completed in 1897 and served a growing parish when my grandmother’s side of the family arrived in Charleston in the first decade of the 1900s. Five generations of my family have received the sacraments and have been educated and worked as educators at Sacred Heart. In the pews of this cathedral, I contemplated my place in my family and was instructed on what beauty is as I gazed at the stained glass, sculpture, and the harmony of the architecture. 

Inside the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

The second of these cathedrals is harder for me to define, but nonetheless, has been equally impactful in forming my sacramental imagination. When I was very young, my family lived on a long road that wound along a ridgetop. At the end of the road, an old and overgrown roadcut entered a deep wood. This is where I was introduced to the wonder of God’s creation in the wilderness He has created for us. This “cathedral” was complete with its own gargoyles and grotesques. The Christie Boys, notorious troublemakers in the neighborhood, had built a two-story tar paper fort just to the right of the entrance of the woods. I had to quietly slip past this reminder of the dangers of the outside world to enter the peace and beauty of the woods that welcomed me. Dappled light entered the thick woods through leaves in the same hues that illuminated the stained glass depiction of the Nativity that I sat next to every Sunday in Sacred Heart. In the woods of Appalachia, I contemplated my place in God’s creation and was instructed on what beauty is as I gazed at the light reflecting in puddles, rocks thrust up and eroded, and the harmony of God’s natural world.

The Wilderness as an Act of Formation

Mr. Hoyer and his wife on a hiking trip.

Later, my family moved from the hills south of Charleston into town in the valley where the Kanawha and Elk Rivers converge. From the valley, my eyes and imagination were always fixed on the mountains. They embraced me and provided protection from oncoming storms. They beckoned me to walk their steep slopes and experience awe and solitude. From this youthful experience, I have been compelled to the wilderness, not as a hobby but as an act of formation.

My engagement with the Sacraments is not just an act of the intellect and the will but of my senses and imagination. My Sacramental Imagination is informed by my experiences in the wilderness. Gazing at a campfire and drawing close to its warmth has helped me more deeply contemplate Pentecost as I watched my daughter, nieces and nephews receive Confirmation. The warmth of that fire does not end at the edge of the campsite but is carried to the rest of the world as an ember we hold deep inside of ourselves. Tracing the branches in a tangled thicket of Rhododendron prepared me to more deeply contemplate the relationship between God’s Will and my own free will. Even the branches that seem to reach the farthest can be traced back to the firm and deep roots. Feeling the strain, sweat, and sore feet as I crossed an eroded rock face prepared me to better contemplate God’s Fullness of Time. Witnessing with all my senses the inevitable Autumn, which follows a long, hot summer, has prepared me to better contemplate the seasons of my own life. 

Channels of Grace in a Distracting World

I propose that we do not approach the experience of the wilderness as a hobby full of gadgets and achievements to be marked off of a list. Instead, if we put aside the trappings of modernity, we open ourselves to the experience of awe, wonder, and the sublime which God offers us in His raw creation. The silence of the wilderness, far from the chatter of modern life, invites us to opportunities for quiet contemplation, and the challenges of the wilderness, far from the comforts that the current culture sells us as necessities, invite us to opportunities for growing in virtue. 

HSP students made a makeshift altar on a hiking trip and celebrated Mass together.

The Sacraments instituted by Christ are channels of God’s Grace. As society increasingly insulates us from the natural world, wilderness encounters can help us better experience the invisible reality present with the visible reality of the Sacraments. Increasingly, my trips to the woods are less about what I will find there and more about what I won’t find there: distraction, diversion, and creature comforts. Through these trips, I intend to train myself to sit quietly, listen intently, and let God’s creation form my imagination.


Mr. Don Hoyer teaches History at Holy Spirit Preparatory School.

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