Last summer, on one of those days you wish would last forever, my daughter Julie and I set out to climb Mount Garfield in the White Mountains, which, at 4,495 feet, I thought would be a relatively easy day hike that would reward us with magnificent views from the Franconia Range, mountain upon mountain sweeping out to the horizon in shades of blue, like billowing waves in the Pacific.
But for all my preparation, we took a wrong turn on the trail, and by the time I realized the mistake, there was no going back because it would have added more than an hour to the hike. So in the dubious tradition of our family, instead of righting the mistake, we pressed onward toward another mountain, and compounded the mistake, which means to say, we decided to climb South Twin Mountain, at 4,902 feet, which was twice as difficult.
But the thrill of the hike and the beauty of the day deluded me into thinking my middle-aged body was invincible – at least until we approached the final steep ascent, which was a mile or so of rocky path that seemed to go straight up and required some scary scrambling.
It was far more than I had bargained for, and Julie, too. As we started, I looked up at what seemed like an interminable path of rocky steps that required enormous effort, which was made more daunting by our backpacks.
Nevertheless, we pressed forward instead of going back. To my thinking, we had come too far to return home without scaling at least one peak.
Every 20 yards or so, we paused to catch our breath; and each time I looked up, the path rising ahead of us seemed just as long as it had before. It seemed as if we were making no progress. We were perspiring, tired and hungry, and my knees were getting awfully sore.
And then, still a long way from the summit with a lot of agonizing hiking to be done, I thought of what Christ said about taking the steep and narrow path to spiritual growth, and all the effort that it requires. Beyond a doubt, this was the steep and narrow path, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
To keep our spirits up whenever we took a break, it was better to look back down from where we had come than to look up to where we had to go. From that perspective, it was heartening to see the progress we’d made, more inspiring than it was to look at the work that lay ahead of us.
That, too, seems to be the story of my spiritual growth. At this stage in my life, I sometimes sit alone in church on Saturday afternoon, waiting for confession to start, and think, "I’m here again with the same collection of sins that I’ve committed for decades." Some things never seem to change.
Where has the spiritual growth been? Then, I fall into a sort of despair because I know that even by the end of my life, I’ll never achieve anything close to spiritual perfection, which as a young man I thought I could do. But there will never be anything even remotely resembling the life of Saint Francis, Saint Thérèse or that of any lesser-known saint.
However, the despondency eventually passes, and I’m reminded of the hiking trail and how by just putting one foot in front of the other, you make progress even when you’re unaware of the progress you’ve made. It always seems you still have forever to go up the steep and narrow path.
I guess Christ doesn’t expect perfection prepackaged. He accepts us as we are and where we are, and leads us forward at his own pace along the ascent. And when it comes time to deal with those familiar faults and flaws that we have, he’ll remove them in his own time, not ours, just as he told Saint Paul, who pleaded with him to remove a thorn in his flesh.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, Paul wrote: "Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me."
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they claim "spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection," but something I read recently referred to "spiritual faithfulness."
It said that because we’re human, we’ll always be at the "state of beginning" and our conversion is ongoing and new with each day. "It is the faithful loving and faithful living of your routine, day to day duties that reveals to you God’s calling upon your life."
When Julie and I finally reached the summit of South Twin Mountain, we were exhausted, but breaking out from the wooded trail onto the open ledges beneath a resplendent blue sky lifted our spirits. Everywhere we turned, mountain peaks stretched for miles in enchanting shades of blue. Everywhere was beauty. Hawks circled overhead, and the silence of the wilderness was peaceful and serene as the quiet of eucharistic adoration on Holy Thursday.
The effort had been worth it, and we sat on the rocky summit and savored the moment, eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apple slices. By the time we got back to the car, we had been on the trail 11 hours and our bodies ached. But the steep and narrow path had been worth every ounce of effort.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.