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Chris McCandless, St. Francis of Assisi, and the Allure of the Wild

May 11, 2021


My wife and I recently re-watched the 2007 film Into the Wild, and this prompted me to re-devour the book upon which it is based. Author Jon Krakauer drew upon his own lived experience of wanderlust and mountain climbing in the Alaskan country to write the bestselling biopic on the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man who left behind his belongings to live off the land of Alaska until his tragic death in 1992. McCandless’ life has inspired some to dismiss him as a self-absorbed, witless fool and others to praise him as a modern Thoreau, heroically eschewing suburban society in the pursuit of the essence of life itself.  

Re-engaging with the story of McCandless, I couldn’t help noticing that the fervor that relentlessly pushed McCandless forward was not dissimilar, in some ways, to what drove the equally polarizing figure of St. Francis of Assisi. McCandless was essentially a St. Francis (or any other saint) who had never encountered Christ. In a similar way, Francis was a McCandless who knew the pitfalls of society yet also knew intimately the heart of Christ and thus spent every ounce of his being giving worship to God and honoring his creation. 

Like McCandless, Francis came from a family of wealth and would one day turn from that path to live for something beyond what mere financial gain could offer. Both men were driven by an uncompromising moral ethic and expected great things from those they encountered. They held themselves to a standard that shocked those around them, and they were considered a bit “mad” by their peers as they lived in utter austerity and cared nothing for the opinions of others.  

Both of these men also had rocky relationships with their fathers. McCandless’ dismissal of the material life was largely a consequence of his father’s worship of it, and St. Francis stripped himself naked in the street to return his father’s exquisite clothing back to him. One man henceforth renounced all human relationships and walked alone into the wilderness, eventually squatting in an abandoned bus in Alaska; the other man begged on the street, cared for lepers, and established a community determined to renew the Church. McCandless took on a new moniker, “Alexander Supertramp,” as his rejection of the old self. Likewise, the religious orders of today still practice the tradition of taking on new names, as it is Christ who lives within that newly vowed man or woman (see Gal. 2:20). 

I believe that the ache of unchurched postmodernism finds its extreme expression in figures like McCandless. The writings of Henry David Thoreau or Jack London can still churn the imaginative juices of men and women dissatisfied with the shortcomings of society and its structures. If our lives lack a meaningful narrative, where else do we turn, goes the thought, but to the unsullied woods? For McCandless, a romanticization of nature took hold and never let go.  

We should realize that the same ache common to us all takes on very different expressions depending upon our influences, our environment, and above all, the conditions of our families. The Augustinian “restless heart” will manifest itself in myriad ways particular to us all: ambition, lust, distraction, over-activity—even the rejection of human society itself—but apart from God, every attempt to make ourselves whole will fall short; all of our contrivances will fail to satisfy. The very beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that God never ceases to draw man to himself and only in that relationship does he find the truth and happiness he searches for. 

McCandless wrote in the margins of one of his books, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” He came to the realization, tragically late, that we are made for a life lived with others—or, as Bishop Barron has often said, “Your life is not about you.” If we are made in the image and likeness of God who is a Trinitarian communion of persons, we can only be made whole within the human family, not by rejection of it. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes asserted, the human person “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” 

The romanticization or worship of nature thus always falls short. Centuries ago, Augustine asked of the earth, the sea, and the deep if they were God; the elements of nature answered, “We are not your God; seek higher.” St. Francis knew how to look at nature sacramentally. God was revealed in the diversity of all created things. Nature wasn’t God, but nature gave glory to the God of playful creation. Be in nature and be recharged by its riches—but don’t make it an idol. 

Personally, I get the draw of McCandless and those who always gaze toward the horizon. In 2006 (pre-iPhone), I tramped around Ireland with a loose plan in place after my study-abroad program ended. I stayed in grungy hostels, entrusted myself to the care and hospitality of strangers, and climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain pilgrimage site, barefoot (hikers passing by muttered that surely I must have been a Catholic). At my former high school, I would lead a retreat with our newly graduated students where we’d enjoy fellowship in the woods of Big Bear, California. The goal was to unplug, read some of the writings of Karol Wojtyla and Pier Giorgio Frassati, and take seriously the journey of young adulthood before them. The mountains are always calling.  

A tamed and domesticated Christianity appeals to no one. As Bishop Barron recently asserted in his two-hour conversation with Jordan Peterson, the Christian way of life isn’t safe suburbanism but an adventure beyond. The pages of the New Testament are dripping with a “grab you by the shoulders” urgency: this event actually happened and we are willing to go to the ends of the earth—even to our deaths—declaring this Good News. We killed God, but he has returned with a message of peace, and he wants to offer us a share in his abundant life (see John 10:10). 

I think every keyboard warrior understands the need to rediscover a bit of the dangerous wild and to test one’s limits. We want a part in a grand narrative, a hero’s drama, and the Gospel offers us that in spades. We ought to recognize this perennial yearning of the human heart and be able to evangelize to its goodness and direct it toward Christ where we alone find rest.  

Krakauer wrote of McCandless: “He wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.” I think the same could be said of St. Francis, but in the fullest sense: his radical life in Christ converted a community of followers, generations of believers, and transformed the Church itself.