Monday, June 27, 2011

The Heart of Monadnock

A few weeks ago I joined some teacher friends and their class of high school students on a climb up Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

I had attempted to climb Monadnock once before, but on that day a rainstorm blew in as we were preparing for the final push to the top, and so we turned back without reaching the summit. I was determined to succeed in my second attempt at the mountain, which tops out at 3,165 feet, and is either the most or second-most climbed mountain in the world, depending upon whose press you are reading (its competitor is Japan's Mount Fuji).

We reached the state park that surrounds the mountain and started down the trail at around 9:30 am. Although rain was predicted later that day—it would turn out to be the day when the tornadoes landed here in central Massachusetts—the morning was beautiful, with clear skies and warm temperatures.

The presence on the trails of children and teenagers and people dressed in regular workout clothes can make you forget that, even at its modest height and moderately difficult climbing terrain, Monadnock is a mountain. If you take only occasional short stops, and move along at a good clip, you can reach the top in around two hours—but those are two very hard hours. Most of the time you are either walking up steep trail or climbing, hand-over-foot, up rocky formations. I exercise four or five days a week, and consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but I still spent a lot of the climb with my heart pumping hard and my leg muscles burning.

We made it to the top around 11:30, right on schedule, and had a half-hour up there to savor the views while we ate the lunches we had brought. I had my picture snapped on the summit, and took a few of the kids up there as well.

The way down, which took around an hour, proved no less difficult than the way up. Trying to move carefully down the steep trail on jellied legs, especially when the rocks are damp, necessitated plenty of short rests, and led to a few near-slips for me and the kids.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the small store run by the state park rangers, I surveyed the selection of books about Monadnock. Since I have been reading and writing so much about religion and spirituality these days, naturally my eye was drawn to a short little book called The Heart of Monadnock, which had a picture on the cover of an angel superimposed over the mountain. I read on the back that it was by an early feminist, children's author, and mountain climber, Elizabeth Weston Timlow, and that it described the “spiritual transformation she experienced while hiking the trails” of the mountain.

That's for me, I thought. I took it home and sat on my front porch later that afternoon, reading about the mountain I had just climbed.

I wish I could recommend that everyone run out and read this strange little book, but I probably shouldn't. The story takes the form of a meandering description of the travels of an unnamed protagonist—referred to as the Mountain Lover—as he spends day after day climbing and traversing the many paths that crisscross the mountain. The vast majority of the book consists of poetic descriptions of the flora and fauna he encounters, of the views he witnesses, and of the physical and emotional sensations he experiences. They are certainly well-written descriptions . . . but there are just too many of them. I had to push myself to get through the entire thing, which is less than two hundred small pages long.

At the heart of the book, though, comes a scene which imparts its main message—and that message seemed to me one worth sharing.

The Mountain Lover comes to a point at which he has lost the trail, and can't figure out where to go next. He hears a voice, which seems to come from the mountain, that reminds him of a Latin quotation he had learned long ago: “Perge, qua via ducat.” Rough translation: “Go on, as the way will lead.” Still unsure of where to place his feet next, the Mountain Lover follows an instinct and starts moving. Within a few steps he recognizes a familiar landmark and finds his way back to the trail he had lost.

Weston opens the next chapter, after this scene, by philosophizing about his experience: “he had taken confidently that next step in life although he had seen nothing beyond. But when he had taken it, the next lay open to his view, and then the next. Perhaps for some distance only one visible at a time, although he so longed to see the whole way. It needed faith. It was not always easy to go on, just feeling the way with his feet . . . But the necessary thing was to go on—go on.”

“Have the main goal clearly in one's vision,” she concludes. “The great definite end. Then keep an unprejudiced attitude towards the route itself. Sometimes it is just a question of what Carlyle wrote: 'Do the duty that lies nearest thee; the next will already have become clearer.'”

It was easy enough to see how and why this message might come from a lover of mountain climbing. The four hours we spent on the mountain that day consisted of three and a half hours of hard slogging, and thirty minutes of spectacular views at the summit. To speak or think of mountain climbing evokes images of basking in the views of the summit; to actually climb a mountain mostly means walking up steep paths, scrabbling over rocks, sweating, grunting, watching your footing, and taking it one step at a time. Every once in a while you get a glimpse of the scenery through the trees—but only every once in a while.

And although she did not put in exactly these terms, I'm sure Weston meant to convey—and if she didn't, I mean to—that maintaining a spiritual life can feel like much the same kind of experience.

Although we might associate ideas about faith and spirituality with experiences of clarity and insight, with joy and peace, with communing with God and feeling the love of all creatures great and small, the daily experience of it can feel a lot more like slogging up the mountain. You will get your moments of spiritual transformation and inner peace, of feeling a sense of oneness with the universe, etc.--but don't expect them if you are not committed to climbing the mountain first. The daily and weekly acts of attending church services, praying, volunteering, donating to charity, forgiving those who annoy you, and coming down on the right side of the small ethical dilemmas we face every day—those acts are the real work of living with faith and spirituality.

Sometimes that work can be enjoyable and satisfying, in the way that exercise can be enjoyable and satisfying. But sometimes you just feel like sitting on the couch and forgetting about it.

The next time I feel that impulse, and am tempted to give up, I'll try to remember Weston's Mountain Lover.

One more step forward.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Homelessness and Hospitality

I write this from the overnight shift with the homeless families who are staying at Blessed Sacrament Catholic church this week as a part of the good work done by the Worcester Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). I’m missing the sixth game of the NHL playoffs, since there’s no TV here; fortunately, I’m not a hockey fan, so it’s not much of a loss for me.

The IHN has taken an innovative approach to helping battle homelessness; it houses a small number of homeless families each week or two at a new church, rotating them through its network of committed parishes and their volunteer members. Although I am sure it must be hard on the homeless families who have to pack and move to a new parish home at the end of each week or two, they are at least always assured of warm beds, food, and transportation to and from their jobs or schools every day. The Interfaith Hospitality Network, which has branches in many US cities, has been coordinating this good work in Worcester since 1997.

I always volunteer for an overnight shift when the families are staying at Blessed Sacrament. Although it’s not much fun sleeping on a cot in a cold function room, I like being here in the silence of the night, where I can think and write or watch a movie on my laptop and still know that I am doing my little share of good in the world. And when I walk out of here at 7:00 am in the morning, after these poor families have been picked up and taken to their daytime destinations, I spend the next week or two filled with boundless gratitude for every small blessing in my life.

My visit here tonight dovetails quite nicely with the book I finished reading last week: Dorothy Day’s Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement. Along with her co-worker Peter Maurin, Day set out in the early half of the 20th century to form a community that would strive to achieve three goals: “founding a newspaper for clarification of thought, starting houses of hospitality, and organizing farming communes.” Loaves and Fishes chronicles their successes and failures over the next several dozen years, as they worked to put into practice the radical ideas of Christ about helping the poor. The book is beautifully written and offers one inspirational story after another, though Day does not hesitate to describe the many setbacks and problems they encounter along the way.

I had known a little about Day and her work before I read the book, and always assumed that she would have argued for a liberal political agenda to match her life of voluntary poverty and servitude. I was surprised, then, to see that in some ways Day offers arguments that diverge quite sharply from liberal convictions about the role of the government in helping the poor.

“It seems to me that in the future the family—the ideal family—will always try to care for one more,” she writes. “If every family that professed to follow Scriptural teaching whether Jew, Protestant, or Catholic, were to do this, there would be no need for huge institutions, houses of dead storage where human beings waste away in loneliness and despair. Responsibility must return to the parish with a hospice and a center for mutual aid, to the group, to the family, to the individual.”

Day and Maurin both constantly emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, and reject wholeheartedly the notion that the government should help the poor and the homeless. That, Day argues, is the responsibility of each one of us.

One of the other points that really struck me was made by Day’s co-worker Peter Maurin.

“We need houses of hospitality,” he said, “to give to the rich the opportunity to serve the poor.”

My first thought, when I read that sentence, was of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and the way in which they provide opportunities for so many parishes in Worcester, and so many of the members of those parishes, to serve the poor. The good work they do for these homeless families constitutes only a small part of the whole; the real service they may provide to the community is the opportunity for so many of us who are rich in blessings various kinds—money, jobs, health, families—to help those who are less fortunate.

If you are interested in learning more about the Interfaith Hospitality Network, or you wish to donate or to see if your parish helps host families, click here for more information. If you are interested in learning more about the presence of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement here in Worcester, you can read about one of their local houses here.

Finally, in the spirit of offering people one more opportunity to help the poor, Matt Robert and I will be performing a series of musical shows this summer at Nu Café and donating all tips that we receive from the audience to the Interfaith Hospitality Network. You can learn more details about that initiative here.

The Director of the IHN will be joining us and saying a few words on June 23rd, so come out and throw a few bucks in the jar—and enjoy the music while you’re at it!