This past semester, some of my friends had gotten into the habit of taking time off from the stress commonly found around schoolwork at our Catholic, liberal arts school to drive a bit through the metroplex to the nearest gym which sported rock climbing walls. Though I’m not terribly athletically inclined (by any means), they ultimately convinced me to come with them for a chance.
I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with rock-climbing; as a younger boy, I had been with my Boy Scout troop, but it wasn’t quite my thing at the time. However, this time around, I was hooked – and it wasn’t because I was much more physically capable than I had been as a scrawny preteen, but rather because I’d learned to appreciate a challenge.
This is rather similar to the beginning of our conscious lives as Catholics. It’s simple enough to go to Mass when you’re living at home with your parents. In fact, if you have parents anything like mine who are faithful to the Church, it’s not something that’s an option.
Upon entering college, you really do enter a new phase of your life, where you choose to accept the new adventure that is life in the Catholic Church, or you languish without it. You can either accept the challenge and face the wall, or you can stay home with a sense of staidness that accompanies a life without wonder. Once you’ve embarked on your journey, things aren’t going to be easy, but hopefully you’ve grasped that much of the challenge.
It’s not a challenge to recite your ABCs after middle school, precisely because you know you won’t fail; challenge always then involves some kind of risk, where you might fail. I’ll tell you truly, I’ve failed my own share of times, both morally and out in the rock climbing gym, and there are quite a few similarities.
First of all, when you start out at the gym, it’s too easy to get caught up looking at how many routes there are. The multitudes of colors and rock paths that look nearly impossible can lead to some hesitancy about getting started. However, you’ve come to the gym to scale the wall, not simply to sit all night on the pads, so you’ve just got to take it slow to start. You will fall, you will fail, but you will learn the ropes and grow in strength along the way.
Your friends will be there to cheer you and guide you along the way if you bring them and ask them for their help. This necessarily engenders a certain humility, which we ought to live in our lives as Catholics. We know that, living in this world, we’ll come to all sorts of challenges, and we will fail, often more than we would wish. This is simply the teaching of the reality of sin. The good news is that we weren’t made for failure, but we were made for greatness, if we but know where to aim, and accept the help of our fellow climbers along the way.
The central truth of the Incarnation lies somewhere in this: men from all ages had sought to climb the mountain and reach God, but at the time appropriate, God himself came down and assumed our form to guide us to himself, and in doing so, allows us to see ourselves as we really are. This is the teaching of the Church in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His Love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22).
Our challenge in living our spiritual lives as Catholics, then, is to journey with Christ, ever accepting the challenge to climb with him closer to God.
A second lesson to draw from the rock climbing gym regards how we look at our own progress and that of others, both in life generally, and, more specifically, in the moral life. It’s often the case that I show up for a climb and see others who are easily and gracefully ascending tricky and difficult routes. Rather than becoming discouraged about how little I can do, it’s better to avoid the comparison in the first place.
In Søren Kierkegaard’s Provocations, he tells a series of parables, beginning with one concerning a series of visits from a little bird to a lily where the moral is ultimately the problematic result of purposefully comparing ourselves to others. When we allow the comparison to others, especially those where we find ourselves lacking, the pain of the comparison “lets the worried one perish on the fluttering wings of despondency.”
The solution here is simple: we cannot help but see others doing things better than we can do them in the various walks of life, but we can accept this vision and let it live in us as a seed of humility. When I see someone conquering a difficult climbing route with half the effort it takes me to wearily get to the top of a beginner’s path, one of the things I don’t see is how much effort he or she has put in to get where they are.
Similarly, in the spiritual life it’s too easy to see saints as people who are so accomplished that we can never be like them. However, through really encountering saints, we begin to understand that they, too, are humans just like us. In his Confessions, St. Augustine presents himself in his weakness before God and the Church in order that those seeking to grow with God may not be discouraged at their own failures, but may see their failings as chances to repent and to start again in the midst of the mercy of God.
Rather than in our ignorance comparing ourselves to others where the result can be giving up, we ought to in all humility recognize those who can help us and implore their aid on the road ahead. Our relationship with God is not that which wholly excludes others, but one which subsists within the Church, and Christ works within the body of his Church to bring us closer to himself, and in so doing, brings us closer together as believers.
With this in mind, I urge my fellow college students, those about to enter University and collegiate life and my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, to seek to grow, even in the heat and duress of this summer, to meet others and grow with them in truth and holiness. Encounter each day as an opportunity for growth, as an encounter with the climbing wall, and let us encourage each other with the words of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young Catholic quite like us, who loved God and his creation: verso l’alto! To the heights!