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‘It is good that we are here’

First slide

It was early on Saturday morning, and daylight was still a long way off. The moon was a melancholy half-circle in the night sky overhead, and chill gusts of wind carried shreds of cloud over the silhouettes of gently tossing trees. Fifty yards away, the trailhead was marked by a rickety gate and a sign. Looking around the gravel lot, I saw only dark and empty cars outlined against the shadow of the alpine forest. We were all alone.

My companions were Tim Banach and Dan Rice, and we were setting off on a long Columbus Day weekend away from the busy schedule of life at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., where we are in priestly formation for the Diocese of Arlington. After seven hours of driving the day before, we had arrived in the Adirondacks, and were now about to spend the day climbing three of the highest mountain peaks in the state: Mount Marcy, Skylight and Gray Peak.

I looked blearily at my watch in the darkness: 3:50 a.m. Between my companions and me, there was a palpable sense of survival-istic grit, a universal denial of pain and fatigue. Ignoring the actual state of how we felt, we congratulated each other for making it to the trail at this unseemly hour. Having risen at 2:30 a.m., we were now ahead of schedule. So far, the day had gone perfectly. All we had to do now was climb over a mile of elevation gain, cover 22.7 miles of the most tortuous terrain, and return to our car by nightfall. We were insane.

Which begs the question: why would three, ostensibly mature young men, knowingly inflict such physical punishment on themselves? Well, that question would be answered before the day was over.

We started along the trail, and the dread which had nagged me for days began to materialize in the form of black mud, knee-high boulders and gnarled tree roots. Muscle-burning uphills and joint-racking downhills all began to wear away the blithe armor of my naive optimism. This was going to be a long hike.

But as this realization sank slowly to the bottom of my heart like a solid fact in a pool of denial, something else, something better, began to dawn on me: Here were three seminarians, hiking in the northern wilderness by night, where the only light apart from our headlamps came from the stars. As we tripped over jagged screes and sloshed through ankle-high bogs, the utter beauty of my surroundings all but overwhelmed me. What a privilege it was to walk through the night forest and wonder at God's creation — the tall and silent evergreens, the little mountain lakes lit by the night heavens — while for all we knew the rest of the world still slept. What a gift.

Now, I'm aware that countless analogies have been made to how a week or day or even just an hour spent in the beauty of nature can seem like entering another dimension, like leaving behind the chaos of daily life and entering the world of God. But this experience of climbing the Adirondack peaks, the experience in nature, did not contrast but rather mirrored the daily lives of my friends and me. In so many ways, our hike up Mount Marcy was an exact icon of our lives at St. Charles.

So often at seminary, I have awakened to my 5:15 a.m. alarm with a feeling very similar to the one I had in the dim light of the parking lot in New York. The daily grind of an early schedule, rigorous prayer routines, daily classes and formation conferences can often feel like slogging over black northern mud and granite boulders.

But there is a vastly different view of seminary life which it only takes the smallest change in perspective to notice, and this is the perspective of gratitude. Despite all of the challenges seminary life brings, they are accompanied by such beauty and joy. I am awed at the wonderful experiences that I get to live every single day in life here at seminary, from the majestic liturgies, to the stunning, panoramic campus under the changing leaves, to the laughter and companionship of seminarian brothers and fatherly priests, to the silent chapel at night, lit only by the flickering tabernacle lamp. The rigorous schedule itself has a sweetness and beauty that I have grown to miss whenever I'm away.

I thank God that I am blessed to be a seminarian, and that I get to experience life in this hidden castle away from the clamor of the world, where the Father can speak to me in the silence of my heart. In a real way, so many of the desires of my heart have only been fulfilled since I entered seminary and actively explored my vocation. Just as on the trail, the going can be tough; but the joy that waits for me day by day is well worth the effort.

At 9:50 a.m. and in a record six hours, with burning lungs and tired legs, Tim, Dan and I reached the summit of Mount Marcy. Before us lay the indescribable expanse of the Adirondack Park in all its majesty. Gusts of wind hurled themselves over the mountaintop, and sunlight glinted on the mighty peaks of the surrounding mountains. Thinking back to that moment, I am reminded of the words of a confused apostle over 2,000 years ago, when with his two companions and in the face of transfigured glory, he could only muster that simple yet honest statement, which I so often utter in my own way at seminary: "Lord, it is good that we are here" (Luke 9:33).

Mann, who is originally from St. John the Apostle parish in Leesburg, is currently in his second year of pre-theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020