I was talking with a young friend a little while ago, when I happened to remember a selection my 7-8 graders read this spring, an excerpt from the autobiography of Sir Edmond Hillary, the first man to scale Mt. Everest.
M's having a rough time right now. She was Confirmed in April, a wonderful, even euphoric time for her after a not-easy entry into the Church. Now she feels so far removed from her joy of that Vigil Mass when she was brought into full communion with Christ's Church. Something happened, she missed Mass one week-end... then another... and now she feels she's just losing ground faster than she can recover it.
It's a feeling I think all of us know well. And complicating matters is that M loves a man who was raised Catholic but due to a series of sad events now considers himself atheist.
"Would your friend be helped more by your return to the Church, or by your continuing delay?" I asked. Of course, she is a gentle soul and is very uncomfortable with the idea of leading or directing anyone in any way. She's particularly uncomfortable with the thought that, as conscious of her faults as she is right now, someone might follow her anywhere.
And that's when I remembered Sir Edmond Hillary.
During his long and arduous trek to the summit of Mt. Everest, nearly all the members of his original climbing party deserted him. Only his native mountain-climbing guide stuck with him. During the final assent, Hillary details how he would lead the way forward for a number of yards, then his guide would take the lead. In this way, each pushed forward in bitter, almost insurmountable conditions, while the other took a more passive role, resting from the earlier exertion and summoning energy for the next. Their progress was deadly, as they took turns testing the durability of ice packs suspended over thin air and braving other hazards in the final yards before reaching that place where no mortals had stood before.
So, as I see it, right now M is taking the lead. She sees where she needs to go in order to reach the summit of Christ's service. She must forge ahead and prepare a clear path for whoever happens to be in her company at this time. Later, when she is weary and discouraged, some other member of her family or her circle of friends -- very likely her now-"atheist" friend -- will pass her on the path, climb ahead, break a new route through deep snow and ice, and help her up onto the next plateau.
If she refuses to take the lead, then those with her are left to flounder at a lower level, their journey to the summit delayed and perhaps even jeopardized by lack of a clear-sighted leader.
And so on we go, each taking his or her turn at finding himself stronger, clearer-minded, leading and helping those who are for the moment spent and in need of aid. It is a startling revelation when we who have always seen ourselves as the pupils and proteges of stronger teachers find ourselves sent forward to find the best route to the next camping space. But we have been taught well, and it is only right we should go as we are sent, for the sake of helping our masters who need us for the moment, and for the sake of those younger than ourselves, who will one day take their places at our sides.