Saturday, May 28, 2011



Monday morning commuters stared from buses and cars at the strange sight: a steady stream of teenage boys slowly filing up the stone steps into Saint Benedict’s Prep wearing big backpacks. By now I suppose a lot of people around town know of our Freshman Backpacking Project that takes place each May. (If you’re not aware of it you may want to read my previous post before proceeding any further.)
Occasionally I’ll bump into one of our kids downtown wearing an empty backpack at the end of a training day when he’s had to bring it to school or has rented it from us for a nominal fee.

At first this seems incongruous if not comical: You expect to see backpackers along the side of a road in, say, the Adirondacks, but not on Market Street in Newark. Yet the sight can also prompt some serious reflections about the journey that each of us lives every day. It doesn't take much imagination to see everyone around you carrying a backpack on the one same human journey. All the principles of backpacking apply to the journey of life. Here are just a few:


First, don’t carry any unnecessary weight on the journey. Ever notice how some people are staggering through life under the weight of burdens they keep collecting and refuse to let go of, such as resentments, prejudices, injured feelings? They're ignoring Principle #1: Travel light, it makes the trip more enjoyable.

Second, don’t hike alone:
Even in New Jersey a simple hiking mishap can turn deadly if you are by yourself. A story I just heard yesterday will serve as a good example: during the hike this past week a freshman got lightheaded and dizzy (probably from dehydration) and fell, striking his head on a rock. He was unconscious when our trained EMT person arrived, driving up a narrow woods road nearby; since the victim was unresponsive the EMT called for an ambulance which in turn took the injured hiker to a helicopter for evacuation to a hospital where everything eventually turned out fine. So, that’s why we have Principle #2: Don’t try to hike alone!

Third, backpacking is NOT a virtual experience -- you do not get virtual blisters on the Appalachian Trail! Your actions have very real consequences; for example, you decide not to protect your clothes in plastic bags inside your pack and therefore wind up with four days to go and no dry clothes to wear.

I was thinking of developing a computer simulation called “Backpacker.” The idea would be that we could save the expense of dragging all those kids out into the woods, and also make the insurance companies breathe a great collective sigh of relief. The game would simulate the backpacking hike with gorgeous mountain vistas, a detailed map, and an accurate report of the weight of the player's backpack. The participant on the virtual hike would see messages on the screen such as: “There was a heavy downpour last night but you had not wrapped anything in protective plastic bags. You will therefore walk all day wearing wet clothes and carrying a pack that is heavier because of its soggy contents.” See, there would be the consequences of not following directions about protecting your stuff from rain. Now I suppose that some might say that reading about wet underwear is different from wearing it, but nothing’s perfect. Principle #3, then, sounds like real life: Make good decisions because you have to live with the consequences.

A fourth principle of the backpacking project, among many others, is that your fate is inevitably linked with the fate of those around you. You can only hike as fast as the slowest member of your eight-man team. If one of your teammates does something stupid that causes his pack to break, you have to wait while he fixes it, and may even have to help him with the repairs. Life is like that. Your car insurance rates, for instance, keep going up because of the rotten driving of people you’ve never even met. This is the result of Principle #4: You are interdependent with other people whether you want to be or not.


For all its surprises both good and bad, however, the Backpacking Project lacks something that everyday living has in abundance: the element of mystery, and most especially for me this week, the mystery of suffering and evil.

While the freshmen were out hiking, those of us who stayed home celebrated a funeral on Wednesday in the abbey church. A graduate of our school in 1997, Rob had won the Presidential Award (our school's highest honor, given to one graduating senior each year) and went on to graduate from Yale with a degree in microbiology. He came back and taught at our school for four years before moving on. Sounds like a wonderful success story, right? Maybe he would go on to help find a cure for cancer. But here’s where the mystery of evil comes in. He came from a family background that included jail and addiction to alcohol and drugs. People who knew him well realized that he was carrying some of those very same demons around inside him his whole life, wrestling with them constantly. He did not go on to find a cure for cancer.

Instead he apparently began applying his scientific knowledge to the raising of huge crops of marijuana in sophisticated hydroponic tanks in his basement and making an estimated $1,000 a day. Until someone shot and killed him last week.

As I looked at Rob’s body lying in the open casket I noticed that the expression on his thirty-year-old face showed a hardness and grimness that it didn’t have the last time I saw him a few years ago. His recent experiences had obviously changed him greatly. There is no fathoming that mysterious kind of evil, I said to myself; we’re helpless when we try to make sense of it. But then I happened to notice the paschal candle perched in its high stand nearby, its flame flickering steadily and brightly twelve feet above the casket.

The viewing and the funeral service were held, as I mentioned, in our church. Although the atmosphere of grief and deep discouragement clashed sharply with the message of the Easter lilies and other beautiful decorations that proclaimed the joy of the paschal season, the contrast was not ironic or painful. Rather it was just the opposite: It is precisely in the face of evil and death that Easter takes on its fullest meaning.
Easter celebrates Christ’s victory over those ancient enemies, sin and death. The victory is still incomplete of course, as Rob’s life and death can attest, but our faith in the risen Lord and in his ultimate victory helps us to continue even in the face of violence, addiction, suffering and death itself.

As I turned away from the coffin and glanced around, the church decorations and the Easter flowers suddenly seemed me to take on a defiant look, as if they were quietly but resolutely insisting that no matter what things look like, one day the victory will be ours.
One day the tears will be wiped away.
One day the horrors of crime and hatred, of violence and sin will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye when the trumpet sounds and Rob and the all the rest of us rise incorruptible.

Meanwhile we go to wakes to weep for young alumni, even ones with degrees from Yale in microbiology.


The next day the first wave of backpackers returned from their long hike. As I came out of our school library across the street I stopped and studied the returning hikers, some of whom were flopped on the sidewalk in front of the school waiting for their ride home. Some looked exhausted, others happy, and others showed little emotion at all.

I wondered what was going on in their heads and hearts. What had they learned from coping with the challenges of mountains and rainstorms and difficult companions?

Then I looked at them again and wondered if maybe three years from now one of them just might get into Yale and then even, who knows, go on to find a cure for cancer.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Fr. Al. Hope all is well-