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January 18, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 6

PROFILE

photo:

Mount Blanc in the Swiss Alps.

To be closer to God

When Father Remi Sojka takes time off from his duties as pastor of St. Mary’s in Blacksburg, he doesn’t sit on a beach or doze in a lounge chair on a cruise ship. Instead, he tackles some of the world’s highest summits, pushing his body to its limits.

He has hiked the ultra-challenging ranges of Denali and Aconcagua, to name just two, and last summer, with his sister, Magdalena, he took on Mount Blanc in the Swiss Alps.

Magdalena, who lives in their native Poland and is married with two sons, is not the experienced hiker that Father Remi is, but he was impressed with his sister’s perseverance.

“She was very determined and strong,” Father Remi said. “We went much slower because we never knew what would happen the next day.”

When hiking Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, one experiences “a huge change in elevation,” explained Father Remi. Hikers walk through France and Italy, as well as Switzerland.

Along the trails are a system of “huts” that function more like a bed and breakfast does in America.

They are structures with running water and bathrooms that are offered as “demi-pension,” meaning that dinner and breakfast are included in the stay.

Father Remi prefers to rough it as much as possible.

“I’m kind of a cheapskate, so we cooked,” he said. “We lived on powdered soups and noodles.”

For Father Remi, the elevation in the Alps was not that challenging. For this trip, the focus was having time with his sister.

They hiked 105 miles in 12 days. “Not a lot,” he said.

Operating on a shoestring budget can save the priest thousands of dollars when he travels.

“If I went through a guided group,” he explained, “the trip (to Mont Blanc) would have probably been $4,000-$6,000 per person.”

Hiking has been a part of Father Remi’s life since he was a child in Poland. He grew up in a city outside of Upper Silesia, an industrial area with a population of over three million.

Living in such an urban area provided little opportunity to experience nature, but his father was able to introduce Father Remi to hiking through his employer. He worked as a bus driver for the Silesian University of Technology, a polytechnic school that is larger than Virginia Tech.

On weekends, the school encouraged employees and students to go on hikes, and Father Remi’s father drove the bus on these excursions.

“Hiking then was more about the challenge, the physical aspect,” said Father Remi. “Then, as a teenager, I became more introspective.

“There was a shift from the physical to the spiritual.”

During this shift in perspective, he turned more to the Church.

“I was a rebel, labeled a troublemaker,” he said.

He began attending his church’s youth group in order to see a girl he liked. This led to him becoming more interested in Jesus’ life and teachings.

“Jesus saw what was in the heart,” said Father Remi.

At age 17, he decided he wanted to enter the priesthood.

He calls his day off “my Holy Day of Obligation.”

“I go hiking. It’s very therapeutic to me to function well later,” he said.

photo: On top of the world — Father Remi and his sister Magdalena pause for a breath and a breathtaking photo during their 12 day, 105 mile alpine hike.

On top of the world — Father Remi and his sister Magdalena pause for a breath and a breathtaking photo during their 12 day, 105 mile alpine hike.

He takes a stove and cooks.

“It’s a mini-retreat. I feel a great connection with God, His overwhelming presence.”

These weekly mini-retreats are vital to Father Remi’s well-being.

“Whenever I’m here as a priest, it’s 24/7. If I’m not in the office, I’m on call.

“Being in the mountains (gives me) a sense of freedom.”

This time to unplug and reconnect with God in a natural setting is something Father Remi believes we all need to experience.

“The biggest benefit is silencing things which are cluttering our minds and hearts and getting in touch with who you are and who God is,” he said. “It’s an opportunity beyond the physical challenge.

“Hiking allows you to be more in touch with yourself and God. It creates an opportunity to test who you are — you are pushed to your limits.

“Responsibilities and external demands are not there,” he continued. “You just take care of basic needs. Sometimes it takes time for the mind clutter to dissipate (but) that’s when we get in touch with a greater reality.”

Father Remi has hiked Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. Carrying very heavy packs and sleds, fighting against howling winds, the physical and mental strain often reduced the hikers to tears.

It is a test of endurance not for the faint of heart.

“A helicopter is not going to rescue you,” Father Remi said solemnly.

His ultimate test came when he took on Aconcagua, located in the Andes Mountains in Argentina. He was with his friend, physician and writer Harvey Lankford, at 22,000 feet.

Harvey decided to turn around when a huge snowstorm came up suddenly. Father Remi, however, was determined to make the summit.

He was alone, dealing with loose rock and debris, when he clearly heard a voice telling him, “Turn around or die.”

“The high altitude causes hallucinations. I thought I met a hiker who told me I died.

“I decided to turn around.”

His goggles were covered in ice and he was in a white out, stumbling, falling down, when a voice called his name and he turned toward it.

“I picked up an Italian hiker in distress and dragged him with a rope,” Father Remi recounted. “When we finally made it back to the tent, I collapsed, crying.

“I felt I had been given a second chance in life.”

photo: Their dining room was the European Alps, their fare often as simple as Ramen noodles.

Their dining room was the European Alps, their fare often as simple as Ramen noodles.

Life-or-death situations aside, enduring the physical and mental challenges of hiking provides stress relief in addition to spiritual benefits.

“I don’t feel constrained by social norms (when I am hiking). I don’t have to do things the way they are expected of me,” Father Remi explained.

“All that is stripped away. You are dealing with the bare minimum, with survival. You have to make sure basic needs are met. Expectations go by the wayside.”

While Father Remi cherishes the time he spends alone in nature, he also emphasizes the importance of gathering with others in worship and fellowship.

“Feeling freedom in mountains and closeness to God, this is not a substitute for my deep need to be connected with others who have the same values and help me to see the reality that connects us,” he stressed.

“Some people are choosing nature over the Christian community. Like sailing boats without a captain, it keeps us disconnected.

“We live in a very individualistic society driven by a consumer mentality. Going to the mountains and spending time there cannot be a substitute for being a member of the community.

“Just being in the mountains — you are not going to get it; you have to also get out with people,” he explained.

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