In the summer of 1965, my father took me to Ireland for the first time. On the fourth Sunday of that July, we joined the pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick, a mountain in the northwest also known as “the reek”. Croagh Patrick rises 2600 feet above sea level, the incline is steep, and, at times, there is nothing but a bed of rocks under your feet. My father and I were separated as the trail held a steady throng of pilgrims. However, I have a vivid picture of my father’s face when I found him on the summit. He was grinning, and puffing on his cigar.
This past summer, forty five years later, I climbed the reek again. A stream runs alongside the rocky trail for a good part of the beginning. I stopped to dip my silver rosary beads in the stream’s tea-colored water as my father had given me those beads as we flew across the Atlantic to Ireland.
As I climbed, I could not allow my eyes to leave the ground for a moment. I had to focus on exactly where I would place my foot for my next step . The trail is rocky, then rockier, and then, rockiest. If there is rain, and in Ireland there is always rain, there is also the slipperiness.
There are rocks and rain in life. And in life I am often preoccupied with where to put my foot next.
As the climb became more difficult, I started to wonder why I was doing this to myself. Am I forcing myself to accept that without God’s help, I would never make it to the top? That without God’s help, I would never make it through life?
To be honest, I felt that my new hiking boots were a major factor in my making it to the top. The last time I had attempted to climb the reek, four years ago, I did not have hiking boots on and I surrendered half way up the mountain. But this past summer, I noticed that the many of the people who were passing me on the trail did not have good boots on. Some women were wearing summer sandals as they scooted on by me.
To prepare for the climb this time, I had also worked out at my gym back in the states. I was in really good shape for the climb. But many other people passed me on the trail, and they were not in very good shape. I took notice of this as they, too, scooted past me on the trail.
I was also prepared mentally for the climb. From my last attempt, I knew where it was easier and where it was going to get tough. I paced myself accordingly. I saw others pacing themselves as well, as they would stop on the side of the trail to rest, catch their breath, drink some water, and take in the view.
Do we pace ourselves in life for the easy bits and the hard bits? Too often, we are blindsided by the hard bits and the easy bits slip by without our even noticing. Life is not as predictable as that trail up the reek.
However, an enormous help to me were my fellow pilgrims, for we encouraged each other along the way. We made eye contact and asked – sincerely – “How are you doing?” The same folks who would pass me as I rested I would pass as I was climbing. We would nod, smile, and comment on our similar plights.
As I found myself on the most difficult part, the last thirty minutes or so , those coming down the mountain would say “Nearly there, now” , “Only twenty minutes to go ”, “Just one tricky corner ahead now, and you are away”, “When you see the gate, you’re there”, “If it wasn’t raining, you could see the gate now.”
But who do we have in life to encourage us as they make their way back down after a hard climb to the top? In thinking about this, I could see that I have similar reassuring experiences when I chat with God, with my deceased mother, with my deceased father –that is, when I engage in prayer. But I have also experienced this when I let my defenses down and confide to a dear friend that I am going through a hard bit, a tricky corner in life, out of breath, rain slashing down on me.
The dear friend usually tells me to stop and look around at where I am, look down at how far I have already come, look at all the beauty that is around me in my life now, all the good people in my life, and then they tell me I will get through this. They got through it, and I will too.
So what I have taken away from my pilgrimage is to hold tight to my fellow pilgrims because all we really have in this world is each other.