I have come to see my Catholic faith as a life-altering journey, sometimes tearing down the strongholds of selfishness and pride, sometimes lifting me up to the heights of heaven, but always, always turning me into the man God expects me to be. Every once in a while I find myself reflecting on this faith journey of my life. Those little self-imposed introspections can sometimes leave me feeling a little drained, but they are certainly good for the soul. They usually lead to a deeper appreciation for the life God has given me, the family I call my own, the gift of words that spill out from my heart to my keyboard, and the faith which has sustained me through it all.
Every summer for some insane reason I load up my backpack way too heavy with supplies and venture out onto the Appalachian Trail for a little test of personal fortitude. I have wondered why I choose to push myself out onto the winding rocky paths up steep climbs and through dark forests only to end up exhausted by the time I reach the nearest shelter where I try to catch a few hours of sleep before getting up and doing it all over again. But I think I have figured it out. These little 3-day excursions grant me a deeper sense of myself and capture so perfectly what my Catholic faith is all about. I thought I would pass on a few insights in this short A.T. Hiker’s Guide to Catholicism.
Testing and Trials of Faith
Every journey, whether we like it or not, is a test of our strength, our will, and our resolve. It takes great faith to set out into the unknown, wondering if we will survive the trials and make it to the end. It is in this realm of uncertainty, in fact, that faith is born. As I walk the Appalachian Trail, I know I must choose my steps carefully, lest I stumble and fall along the way. I carry with me what I think I will need to sustain me on my journey. I know that compared to the thru-hikers I meet my pack is very overweight, but I bear the load because I know at the end of the day, my fresh clothes, toiletries, and a trusty tent will offer me a comfortable night’s sleep and a feeling of security and wellbeing.
I know, as a Catholic, I carry with me more than what other Christians would consider necessary for the journey of faith. But I take comfort in the traditions, the writings, the additional Scriptures, and the sacraments that keep me grounded and bring me contentment at the end of the day. Is there a danger of turning those things into idols? Perhaps. But I have been on this path long enough to understand the nature of these great gifts. I know they are precious provisions which bring strength and refreshment as I travel the road to heaven.
Mapping Out My Journey
The Appalachian Trail is usually well-traveled and well-marked with white blazes. Still, even the most seasoned hiker will carry some sort of map to guide the way. I have an app on my phone with the entire trail marked out with every place to rest. I also carry a PDF version of an A.T. hiker’s guidebook to direct me to water sources, roads, and shelters. Should I wander off the path or become confused as to where I am, I know I have a way back to the safety of the trail. Each year as I begin my journey, I use these tools to map out the individual hike I will take.
Similarly, I know I have the tools of my Catholic faith to guide me along my journey. The teachings of the Church and God’s Word provide the vital information I need for getting to my next destination. They are my heavenly GPS, reminding me God above knows my every step and is there to keep me on the narrow road. The waypoints of truth are laid out and the guidelines of faith established so I can calculate carefully my individual journey towards the goal. I choose my steps, but I know God continues to speak to me through His Spirit, His Word, and His Church. In this, I am confident I will always find my way.
Rocks, Rain, and Rough Roads
My favorite parts of the Appalachian Trail are those lovely little paths which meander through the woods beside babbling brooks or still ponds overlooking an idyllic countryside scene. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. Much of the A.T. is rough and rocky, full of steep climbs or muddy paths. This year I walked in a summer rainstorm, even though I had specifically asked God to spare me from a wet hike. I made sure make the most of the experience, however. I spent time in prayer, meditating on why God allows rain to fall upon our lives and why He seems to lay out difficult paths before us. There were no great revelations, but I did find myself in a place of resolve, where I accepted that no experience is ever wasted. There in the wet woods, I was content to wait for future insights to come.
Jesus never promised us the road to heaven would be smooth and packed with peaceful moments. He did promise us that He would be with us and share His easy yoke as we traveled along the way. As I have walked these many years with my Savior, I have learned rain cleanses and renews, rocky climbs strengthen feeble knees, and trials and struggles are often strict schoolmasters, teaching us invaluable lessons about how to live the Christian life. And when the beautiful vistas come, I breathe in their purity and bask in the joy they bring. In all this, perhaps what is most important is I have discovered the journey itself is a beautiful blessing, and it is glorious to surrender to the will of the One who has laid it all out before us.
Saints and the Smell of the Trail
One of best parts of my A.T. hikes is meeting the thru-hikers. They are the ones who have committed to trek the entire Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. They travel light, know the way, and seem to walk it effortlessly. They speak their own language, are totally sold out to the Trail, and have a strength that allows them to persevere as they travel the long and arduous journey to their final destination. They are the extraordinary saints of the journey compared to my ordinary stumbling self. Yet, they never judge me for my overweight pack and my slow pace along the trail. They have the dirt of the road on their bodies and the smell of the trail in their nostrils, yet they have an inexplicable joy and a gentle spirit that extends to everyone they meet along the way. They are the giants and I am the one struggling to believe. It is a sobering lesson I learn over and over again with every hike I take.
Though each Catholic is certainly a saint, we have been blessed to know there are those who have totally sold out to the journey and who stand as examples for us to follow. They never seem caught up in the trappings of this world, run the race with a supernatural strength, and speak the language of the angels as they stretch their souls out along the entire journey from this world to the next. They are so connected to their relationship with the One who is leading them home that they shine as models of saintly living. They love with the love of Christ, never judging the ordinary believers weighed down with their woes, but encouraging us with their radiant example of what it means to walk the perfect path toward the mountain of God.
Never Missing the Moment
All along the Appalachian Trail, there are wonders I may miss if I am so focused on the next goal that I forget to take pleasure in the journey itself. There are many delights of the hike: the satisfaction of drinking water filtered from a cool and crystal clear stream, the comfort of a hot cup of tea at the end of a long day of hiking, the beautiful works of God displayed in the flora and fauna of the woods, and the majestic views from atop a mountain summit after a rigorous climb. And then there is the trail magic – little gifts of food, water, and tasty treats left by lovers of the A.T. at junctions along the trail. I admit there have been times when I was so focused on getting to the next shelter (sometimes for my own safety) I forgot to “hike my own hike” and failed to notice these little delights along the way. But when I find myself in a good hiking rhythm I strike a balance between pressing on toward the goal and savoring my experiences along the way.
There are so many beautiful miracles along the road of life that Catholics may miss if we are too focused on reaching the next goal of the journey. If we worry too much about getting our fill of sacraments instead of satisfying ourselves with each new experience of them, we may fail to fully grasp the spiritual significance of each sacred sign. Each day is a mystery which unfolds before us, full of moments to be taken in and treasured in our hearts. Our Catholic faith is a delightful journey in the here and now, a precious gift of joy to be shared in communion with our brothers and sisters who are hiking their own hikes as they too walk in a holy cadence toward heaven’s shining gates. Jesus calls us to live our life to the fullest, surrendering to the power and potential of each and every day.
Next year I am sure I will once again overfill my backpack and venture out onto the Appalachian Trail. Maybe I will explore a new section or maybe I will retrace a previous hike once more. Whatever the case, I know I will allow the journey to stir within me the power and presence of Jesus Christ and bring new meaning to the precious Catholic faith I call my own. I will use the trials of the hike and the trials of my life to discover more and more just what it means to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. And in the end, I will treasure the journey as I walk with my Savior along the blessed way.