Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lessons of the Reek: Ascent

I stood at the bottom of a cone shaped mountain, before a statue of St. Patrick, on a morning that was somewhere between soft and outright rainy.   A sign proclaimed  caution, in the typically understated Irish way: It is strongly suggested that hikers use staffs and It is advised not to attempt ascent when wet or cloudy.  The trail was already running with rivulets, the crest of the mountain--half a vertical mile up--was encased in clouds and my Leki poles were safe at home in Tennessee.  
The day before, I had caught a glimpse of the mountain off to the side of the road, a sharp. perfect cone  I took comfort for a minute in the fact that it was off to the wrong side of the road, and relaxed; it looked so intimidating.  Then the road turned, and there it was, Croagh Patrick, right where it should be, bleak and sharp against the setting sun.
Im not sure what possessed me, pushing 60, overweight and sadly out of shape to declare to my husband that we’d climb the Reek, but I did.  I should have reconsidered as I encountered the reactions of friends. Better you than me....God bless you that’s a hike, followed by laughter.....Well yes, that’s the done thing, isn’t it? Quite a climb, I’ve never done it...followed by a change of subject.
But i t was our innkeeper in Lurgan who put it best.  You’ll finish.  Not because you’re so fit, mind you.  But sure, It’s Croagh Patrick.  You have to finish.  The Reek has a way of pulling you on....
So much went through my mind as I took a few long minutes to look up at the where the summit would be, were it not for the clouds.  So much turmoil in the last few weeks, some of it of my doing, some of it of my delivering, some of it beyond my control.  Unbidden, a question my confessor had asked me a few weeks ago popped into my mind: Do you trust God to lead you where He wants you to be?
Well, actually Father, no, I don’t.  Intellectually, I  understand, and give consent, but that consent hasn’t moved to the deepest part of me. Famous last words of the activist---nothing’s going to happen unless I do something.  Unless I do something.  Unless I do something.  The problem, of course is knowing what and when, and for that reason, I think, I stood at the base of the statue of St. Patrick, making my morning offering.
It’s going to be a long day, Father.  There will be a lot of suffering for me to offer.  I’m not sure I can do this, but I want to.  Help me.  Keep my angel beside me.  Guide my steps.  I’m offering this climb for all that’s happened these few weeks, for those who are losing their jobs, for the daughter of a new friend who is dying of cancer, for another friend who suffered a stroke after brain surgery, and his wife and his babies, For the Church in Ireland as she walks the path the Church has already walked in America.  For all those things I can’t do anything about except pray and today, walk.  And by the way, St. Patrick, would you come along? I’m going to need a lot of help....
We started out, the stones slipping a bit under my new boots, the water coursing through the trail.  My jeans were already wet by the time I made the first curve, just out of sight of Patrick.  Turn back.  This is crazy.  You’re going to get hurt and nobody really know you are here.  God won’t care.  This is nuts.  You don’t even have a hiking pole and God only knows--really, ONLY God knows--what the trail is like up ahead.  I have no need of a shoulder devil to confuse me--my mind does quite a nice job at that all by itself, than you very much.
I looked up.  There in the lush grass by the trail side was a staff.  Long, straight, stout and well used, the base of it feathered into a cushion by trips up and down the Reek.  It was long enough to give me leverage when I needed it and there was a knot about two-thirds of the way up that provided a comfortable rest that fit my hand perfectly so that I didn’t notice its weight, only its utility....Thank you, Father...Patrick.  About that time, the skies parted enough to cast a spectrum across the trail, first one, then two brilliant rainbows.  A good omen.  If Ireland doesn’t make a mystic out of you nothing will....even its very weather speaks.
The first part of the climb is deceptive, a long, relatively easy rise along a slough, rising to a ridge where the first lean-to waits.  We started out alone, no one else in sight.  By the time we got near the top of the first leg, one couple had met and passed us, and a group of giggling teenaged girls closed in on us.  We sat and refreshed ourselves with water and chocolates, taking pleasure--if a bit polluted by wistful envy--in their energy and enthusiasm.  One of them looked at us, puzzled, obviously wondering what we were doing on such a rugged trail.  How old are you, she asked with the disarming directness of youth. What are your names? I’m Melisssa.
We watched them gather, their tired, twenty-something guide straggling in, clearly exhausted not by the climb but by the energy and shrieks of the girls.  We took a few photos for them, then went our separate ways, we toward the top again and they back to the car park where lunch and another new adventure waited.
It was there the trail began in earnest, going straight up the back of the mountain, and very nearly vertical at the end,a detail concealed by the mountain itself as we had approached.  Switchbacks are apparently an American invention.... 
The rocks got bigger, the trail steeper.  The unending audiotape that runs in my mind became silent, repeating only one more step You can make one more step.  The lessons of climbing from long ago when I was young and fit emerged.  The steeper the trail, the smaller the step--big strides exhaust the trail--if you look ahead you will be discouraged, if you look behind, frightened...when in danger of slipping, plant your foot across the trail and dig in your heels.  Not bad lessons for the spiritual life...
We were about halfway up the back, muscles burning, when I did it.  I took my eyes of the trail and looked at what lay ahead.  Like Peter when he took his eyes off Christ, I was immediately overwhelmed.  Leave fear even the smallest opening, and in it will flood.   How am I ever going to finish this?  I hurt so much, my legs, my arms from holding onto the staff, my back, my knees.  I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m exhausted. How am I even going to get down if I decide to quit?
I sank to my knees in the middle of the trail , then sat, and I cried.  I’ve learned over the years that sometimes, there’s nothing for it but to have a good cry, and then get on with life.  So in the middle of a scree slope, on the back of Croagh Partrick, I wept.  And then I got up.  One more step.  You can always do one more step....nonsense, sometimes you can’t, sometimes, you fail, fall short...not this time, just one more step, one more step, one more step...keep your eyes on the trail, and just pay attention to where you are right this minute...Do you trust God to lead you where He wants you to be?...surely by now, you know that’s at the top of the Reek....
A few dozen yards short of the top, I gave out again, muscles screaming, no energy left, but this time without tears.  I closed my eyes, and felt the sun--out for a moment--on my face, and this time, just prayed, I can’t remember what, then laid back on the stones for a long moment before pushing up on Patrick’s staff and trudging on.
The sign says takes an average of 3.5 hours to make a round trip top to bottom, car park to peak, a mile up and down in altitude and who knows how much in linear feet, to get to the top of Croagh Patrick.  Nearly four hours after we started, I crowned the summit.  The rain had started again, and the clouds were close in.  The wind was fierce and it was cold.  All I could see was the bleak, rocky top of the mountain, the chapel and the spot called Patrick’s bed.   I was cold, I could barely stand, and I was hungry, but I was there.  I joined my groom in the lee of one of the walls of the chapel, sank down and tucked into the bread, cheese and apple we had brought, too tired to be anything but grateful to have survived and wondering just a bit how I’d ever get down.
Until the wind slowed and the rain paused, and the clouds opened up to show the landscape below. I stood up on wobbly legs to look before the clouds closed in again.   The bay, the islands, the fields  were far enough away to be in perspective, but seemed close enough to touch.  Across it all, another brilliant rainbow.  What breath I still had, it took away.  Was I in the spot where St. Patrick threw the silver bell and cast out Corra and banished the snakes?  I know now why he climbed that mountain to fast and pray for Lent, how the physical ascent can put all things, not just the landscape, in perspective.
Do you trust God to bring you where He wants you to be?

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