The best stories I’ve heard while in the military always started with “There I was,” followed by the response “Where were you?” and were always at least 10% truth.  I’ll leave it up to you as to how much truth remains in the following tale of life and death.

So there I was…The sun was a few hours yet from setting on the fifth day of my seven-day backcountry hunt in the mountain ranges of Wyoming–the Windriver Range to be exact–when I noticed that the batteries were dead in my navigational aids.  Now many who are unfamiliar with what backcountry hunting entails might not fully appreciate the gravity of this situation.  You see, backcountry hunting isn’t your “wake up early and climb into a treestand before the sun comes up” kind of hunting.  As the term “backcountry” implies, you’re way back in the country—the wilderness.

At this point of the trip, I was probably 10 miles away from the truck and 3 miles from base camp (as the crow flies), which is where I left the bulk of my supplies.  I may or may not have been paying great attention to plotting my movement on my paper map as I tracked and stalked the elk.  Why does any of this matter?  Well, I was at 12,000+ feet in elevation in rocky terrain.   Tired, hungry, and low on supplies meant getting back to camp became my top priority.

Probably at this point in this short story, you might be asking, “Were you carrying a compass?  If so, why didn’t you use it?”  Those are excellent questions.  The short answer is: my compass broke.

On a somewhat quick aside, the metaphor for the compass as a moral guide to your conscience could not be more appropriate.  It’s a pretty easy metaphor to grasp.  The purpose of a compass is to help you decide which direction to go in relation to your surroundings by using a fixed reference point in order to reach your final destination.  For a compass, the reference point is magnetic north, whereby the user must account for magnetic declination, which is the distance between magnetic north and true north.  More importantly, for a moral compass, the reference point is the absolute truth of God, which we see expressed in the teachings of His Church. In short, if my destination is Heaven, my conscience, which is also my moral compass, should help me get there.  It sounds so easy, but yet it is so very difficult.

Back to the story…

There are many ways to break a compass.  Probably the most telling way would be to smash it.  Well, I didn’t smash my compass, so it definitely wasn’t that obvious.  Instead, I realized all too late that I demagnetized my compass.  This realization became more and more apparent when, in the course of using said compass, I seemed to get terribly and undeniably lost.  Because I had a general idea of which way was north (I could ballpark where the sun would set and I could look at the topography around me and compare it to where I thought I was on the map), I came to the conclusion that I was in fact lost. My biggest worry became the approaching darkness.  If navigating without GPS or a compass was difficult in daylight, it’s even more difficult during nighttime, even if I had paid more attention to the celestial navigation portion during land navigation training.

Now, stick with me through another somewhat quick aside: it is also possible to “demagnetize” your moral compass.  I suppose a more appropriate term would be “demoralize.”  A compass becomes demagnetized when it is exposed to other magnetic pulls.  A lot of electronics such as cell phones, car speakers, or anything that exerts a strong enough magnetic field can demagnetize your compass, especially if you place your compass close enough to it.  Your moral compass is very similar, which is why there’s such a term as the “near occasion of sin.”  Sin can demoralize your moral compass very easily.  Your proximity to sin, particularly if you actually commit the act of sinning, injures your moral compass to the point where you might even consider sins as your new cardinal directions.  Also, just as I almost didn’t notice I was lost in the wilderness, we may not realize we’re lost in sin.  Your moral compass becomes moral relativism, which is anything but useful or moral, and it will point you in every other direction except toward Heaven.

And this brings us back to the story…

Thanks be to God that I realized my compass broke; it meant I had time to remedy the situation.  It would have been all too easy for me to resist admitting I lost my way, which could have led to a more perilous situation.  For the record, this confession tasted bitter.  How could I, a seasoned outdoorsman, commit such a heinous act of getting lost?  It’s a good thing that this flavor was short lived.  Now I could move on and forward back to camp.  I took my needle, passed it back and forth on my merino wool clothes, set it on a floating leaf, and voila, I had a new, workable compass.  The rest is history.

The story above came from my hunting journal in 2015.  I wrote 3 bushcraft takeaways from the aforementioned event.  Looking back at it, each of the three has a spiritual counterpart.

  1. Ops check your gear.
  2. When the fit hits the shan, don’t panic, and remember the basics.
  3. Whatever you do, don’t forget Takeaway 2.

When I say “ops check your gear,” it means to see if everything is in good working order.

For your moral compass, this can be as “easy” as doing a daily examination of conscience.  If your moral compass works as it should, your morals should line up with the Church’s moral teachings.  For example, the Church teaches that sex before marriage is gravely sinful.  If your moral compass works as it should, you’ll be able to recognize such actions as gravely sinful and avoid such actions.  This may not always be easy.  The world can be confusing and can easily “demoralize” a person from doing good.  Making an examination of conscience a habit is a classic way of ensuring your moral compass is in good working order.

With that said, we’re not perfect.  Despite our best efforts, our “gear” may still break.  Why?  Because being a faithful Catholic comes with certain operational hazards that make keeping your moral compass in good working order.  However, there’s no need to panic.  Remember the basics:

  1. You’re a beloved child of God.
  2. When you’re lost in sin, admit you’re lost.
  3. There’s only one, straight, and narrow path to Heaven.
  4. God gave us His Church to point the Way.

And lastly, never forget Takeaway 2.  Satan wants you to think that your unworthiness is the end all, be all.  It’s not.  It never was and never will be.  God’s infinite love for us makes us worthy.  We just have to accept it.  Satan wants you to look at the world and all its suffering so that you’ll think that there is no Way—that there is no God.  It’s so easy to press the panic button.  Don’t.  There is absolutely no sin in the world you can commit that God cannot forgive so long as you earnestly desire His forgiveness!  There is always the Way to get back on the straight and narrow.

Also, in case anyone was wondering, no, I didn’t get an elk.

  • Phil Alcoceli

    Thank you, Mr. Bersabe!