Falling down a mountain is scary. Falling off of a seven man crew that is carrying a tree trunk up that mountain, is downright terrifying. There I was, on a P23 retreat in the mountains of North Georgia, scrambling to get back up to the trunk, where now just six were carrying a load for seven, on a near vertical slope of loose leaves. The retreat, one of several Fr Justin our Vocations Director did that year, was named P23 for psalm 23, since the point was to take up a tough, outdoor challenge that breaks the guys down until they really experience the need for the Lord, their Shepherd, in their life. So the challenge that the thirteen young men who had come on this particular retreat had chosen was to erect a larger-than-life cross on top of a north Georgia Mountain. It was intense and tiring, climbing a small mountain carrying two tree trunks on the shoulders of all fourteen of us, so we stopped frequently, rotating in and out. The guys were excited though, and kept each other going with jokes and high spirits, driven by the thought of seeing this cross put up and knowing they had gotten it there.
It was slow going, and by the time we neared the top it was evening. We had been carrying tree trunks and falling all day, so we happily sank down to rest while Fr Justin and a few of the more woodsy guys went off to scout how to make it to the top, since our view only showed a sheer cliff face. Half an hour later we were met with bad news: we could make the top, but not with the trunk. With a vague idea that we would return for it, we headed up the last leg, but inside I knew we wouldn’t return for the two cross pieces. At the top, as the sun was setting and I was scouting for some water (we had run out on the way up) Fr Justin let them know the bad news: the sun was setting, three of the guys had to head out, we were out of water and the last 30 feet up were too steep to survive carrying a tree trunk up it. It all meant there was no way they could get the cross up to the top. Everyone became quiet and dejected as they realized they couldn’t finish what they had labored the whole day to do. Then Fr Justin asked, “So, did we fail?”
“Of course”, shot back one of the guys bitterly, “we didn’t get the cross to the top. That’s what we set out to do.” There was a sullen silence of agreement from all the young men, but Fr Justin simply asked, “Well, did we try to do all we could to accomplish it?” “Yes”, they all murmured. “So then, did we fail”, he asked, “or did we do what we thought was best and God showed us His plan? Maybe we failed to get the cross to the top, but we succeeded in trying to do God’s will, and it seems now that it is not His will that we erect that cross up on the mountain, since that would probably mean serious injury or death and we know He doesn’t want that. Sometimes this is how life turns out, you go one way you think God wants you to, and then He shows you that He wants you to go another. But, even though you’re disappointed, you found out a little bit more of what God’s will for you is. And that’s what we’re trying to do, right?”
He looked around at the young men pondering his words and the deeper reflections on what they had tried to do. I sort of brushed it off, but later that night, roasting hot dogs around a blazing dead pine the guys had found, I saw the change in the young men, that the joy was back, and only much later, pondering deeply on what God’s will really is, did I realize how much the retreat had been a success. What we all need is an experience of trying to follow God’s will for His sake, and sometimes you need a good failure to succeed in that.
Photo Credit: Jeff Krause