[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times August 14, 2008]
For though the fig tree blossom not nor fruit be on the vines, though the yield of the olive fail and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God. God, my Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet swift as those of hinds and enables me to go upon the heights. Hab. 3:17-19
“There’s an amazing view when you get around the corner,” the woman ahead of me on the trail offers by way of encouragement. “Thanks,” I squeak out, “but I think I’ll wait ‘til I get to the top and be surprised.”
This is not a gentle trail through the woods; I’m clinging to an iron rung bolted to the cliff with a 250-foot drop to the ocean below, watching my son Chris hug the rock face and inch carefully around the corner on a ledge a few inches wide.
Chris is not afraid. He moves confidently forward to the hike leader waiting on the other side. He knows someone fell here a few years ago and died, but his step remains firm, his eyes trustingly on the leader.
As I follow him across, the words of the prophet Habakkuk rise unbidden to my lips. He makes my feet swift as a hind’s and sets me safe on the heights.
We safely reached the summit, where the views of Mt. Desert Island’s granite crags and the Atlantic surf were as magnificent as promised. God’s creation spread out before our eyes, sparkling in the sun.
On the bus ride back to camp, Chris is still marveling at the experience. “Were you scared?” asked a younger camper. “No, I knew if I fell the leader would catch me,” he declared authoritatively.
I am struck by his assurance. What makes it so easy for him and hard for me? I know I’m not alone in my struggles; the prophets and psalmists alike struggled with trust and doubt.
My imagination runs rampant. Like Habakkuk, I am full of “what ifs?” What if the fig tree failed to blossom or the flocks vanished from the fold? What if my foot were to slip? What if I couldn’t catch Christopher?
Just like I inched along the cliff face hoping to delight in the incredible view at the end, amidst all the uncertainties of life, Habakkuk moves forward in trust, rejoicing in his saving God.
Clinging to the mountainside, I was acutely aware of my physical frailties. My strength alone might not be enough to hold me up.
Opening my breviary the next morning, the memory of the cliff and the words of Psalm 51 provoked a deeper awareness of my spiritual imperfections: “My offenses truly I know them, and my sin is always before me.” Here, too, the psalmist seeks the remedy of “rejoicing and gladness.”
I suspect Chris' secret is the same as the psalmists and prophets — joy. He is attentive to God’s wondrous creation, to God in all things and experiences.
Like priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Chris delights in all he discovers along the way — dusty trails, breathtaking views, fruit on the vines or not. He trusts it will all be marvelous.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.
From Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.