Friday, May 20, 2011



This Sunday, May 22, our freshmen will board chartered buses for their 53-mile backpacking hike along the Appalachian Trail from High Point to the Delaware Water Gap. To be precise, half of them will leave on Sunday and the other half on Monday.

Every day for the past three weeks they’ve been training for this culminating event of freshman year, learning the basics of camping, first aid, safety, and so on. But in fact the experience is not aimed so much at teaching them about backpacking; it’s much more about less measurable outcomes such as understanding yourself and getting along with others.

The Backpacking Project is a great example of “teaching without objectives.” I honestly do not know what any individual freshman is going to learn during his five days and four nights in the woods. But I’m confident that he’ll pick up at least some insights about life.

Think of it: Five days and four nights continuously with the same group of seven classmates, sharing the tasks of making and breaking camp, cooking, carrying supplies and equipment; sharing the discomforts of rain, heat, cold, gnats and ticks, no showers and no electronic devices. Of course the trip includes sharing lots of good things as well: the camaraderie and laughter, the beautiful mountain scenery, the satisfaction of arriving together at the assigned campsite each night. When you are linked so closely with a group for five days you’re bound to learn something about yourself and others!

Some kids, as you can imagine, have a great time and sign up the next year to be student instructors as sophomores and then maybe project leaders as juniors. Others suffer through the experience as something one has to undergo in this crazy school in order to pass on to sophomore year, but they vow never to go into the woods again.

There is another group, however: kids who have a miserable time because the members of their hiking team were constantly arguing, insulting one another, refusing to share in the work, and otherwise acting childish. I thought of this group when doing some background reading on a passage from St. John for a homily this morning.


At the last supper Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). An equally valid and perhaps more accurate translation in the context would be “I am the way TO the truth and life.” Jesus, then, leads his followers to “truth.” The following commentary on the passage is what made me think of our freshmen and their backpacking teams:

This truth is, of course, the same truth for which Jesus came into the world, as we saw in his dialogue with Pilate. It is the critical revelation that the very purpose of our existence is to love unselfishly and that we will fulfill that purpose only if we use what freedom we have to love as unselfishly as we possibly can. Moreover, Jesus is not the way simply because he tells us about it but, far more importantly, because his life is an embodiment of this unselfishness. Accordingly, to follow his way means to become unselfish in and with him. (Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B., A Mystical Portrait of Jesus: New Perspectives on John’s Gospel, p.48)

Some developmental psychologists say that in adolescence a person passes through a second period of egocentrism, a regression to the terrible twos. So “becoming unselfish” is a major psychological task for a teenager, and the Appalachian Trail hike is a great place to work at the task. A team made up of unselfish hikers can put up with just about anything and end up content, while a team of two-year-olds is destined for a long miserable week no matter what.


The Appalachian Trail is marked by white blazes on trees and rocks; if you follow them you stay on the trail and get to your destination. Christ has told us that he is the “way;” the Greek hodos can mean a road, a pathway, and I suppose, a hiking trail. And of course, the goal is to arrive at the end of the trail – in the case of our freshmen that means Dunnfield Ravine at Route 80 in the Delaware Water Gap. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, you can imagine, when you hike down the side of the last mountain and across the little wooden bridge into the ravine, and you’re given your patch that symbolizes that you have indeed walked the 53 miles from High Point and are now ready to move on with your life both at St. Benedict’s and in the wider world.

I love the Freshman Backpacking Project. There’s just so much right about it. Not the least, I suppose, is that it’s such a perfect metaphor in so many ways for what we Christians are trying to do every day of our lives: to “become unselfish” by helping one another to overcome the obstacles we all encounter on the way through life, and in so doing become the Body of Christ who is himself “the Way to the truth and life.”
........................DELAWARE WATER GAP

No comments:

Post a Comment