What Deer Hunting Taught Me About Prayer

One of the more difficult sacrifices I made when I entered the Jesuits was giving up hunting, the very sport which is my namesake. It’s not that Jesuits aren’t allowed to hunt, as some may think, but more because Jesuit life, especially in formation, isn’t conducive for having access to places to hunt and ample time to spend in the stand. 

To my surprise and great delight, the Lord gave me an opportunity to bow hunt again earlier this month. I gave my bow away to my friend Cade before I entered the Society of Jesus in 2017, so my loving family shipped up my dad’s old bow, some camouflage, and a few other hunting essentials. My Jesuit brother Michael Peterson and I took to the woods in northern Michigan in land we’ve never hunted. We didn’t have much time to cut trails, scout the land, make shooting lanes, hang stands, and do everything else that is conducive for a successful hunt. Prior to entering the Jesuits, my family would begin preparations for the season a couple months in advance. Michael and I had two days. Our odds of killing a deer looked slim, but both of us were more excited to be in the woods than anything else. 

In this return to the woods, so much felt familiar: the early wake up to get to in the woods before daylight, the slow movements in the stand so as not to get spotted by the deer, and even using scent-free soap, shampoo, deodorant,  and laundry detergent so that my scent would go as undetected as possible. It was my first time bow hunting as a Jesuit, and while the hunting experience felt similar in many ways, there was something  different about it. I was able to appreciate it in a new way.  In fact, I had a moment when I was hunting where God opened my mind to something special: not only did hunting as a kid teach me to pray, but it taught me how to pray

While I could not have named it as such when I was a kid, interiorly I felt my soul being shaped and formed in the silence of God’s voice and the beauty of God’s woods. St. Francis of Assisi  sees nature “as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness,” as Pope Francis says in Laudato si’. I fell in love with this magnificent book of nature, and spent almost all my free time in the fall and winter in the deer stand. Undoubtedly, much of my current spiritual life was formed in the long, coldish hours of Louisiana fall and winter.

In addition to carving out a space for silence in my soul, hunting taught me the importance of showing up, no matter what I feel like doing. Identical to hunting, prayer can be uneventful, boring, and dry. Days and weeks can pass by without seeing a deer, or in the world of prayer, without sensing God’s presence. Regardless, we have to ceaselessly show up in the stand if we want a shot at a trophy deer, and we have to always go back to the chapel seeking God’s grace. One of my greatest deer hunts in my life came when I killed an incredible buck with my dad as I was a last minute replacement for my younger brother who elected to sleep in instead of go hunting (sorry, Ben). In order to kill a deer, you have to put time in the stand. So too with prayer, we have to spend long hours with God so we can best receive the grace He wants to give to us.

The greatest feelings a hunter experiences comes after sitting alone in the woods for hours on end, when suddenly, you see or hear that you are not alone any longer. The world stops, and it is just you and the deer. You get what we call in the hunting world, “buck fever.” Your heart begins to beat so loud that you get scared the deer might hear it, and your hands start to shake uncontrollably. You sit perfectly still focusing on every movement the deer makes. Time pauses, and the hunt begins. 

My most graced moments of prayer have been almost identical to this experience: after long hours in the chapel, seemingly alone, my heart drops, and I realize that I’m not alone. I sense God’s presence. The only thing that matters is the next move God will make. The one difference between praying and hunting is that when I’m praying, there is no hiding from God, and I’m the one being hunted.

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