The Alpine Tower is a rite of passage. The name alone strikes fear in the hearts of student campers.
In 2012, I chaperoned 17 students on their Camp Lakewood adventure. The students stood at the base of the tower - and stared at the 50-foot vertical structure.
The most athletic boys had the greatest mental challenge. They silently assessed the tower from all angles. They categorized the ropes and swapped notes. Taking the easiest way up would look bad. They had images to uphold. But choosing the most difficult way up might mean not making it at all. That would be tragic.
The girls had their own fears.
One girl marched over to the base of the tower. Her older siblings had made it to the top in previous camping trips. And, by golly, she would too. Family honor was at stake. She scaled the structure quickly and easily.
Another girl stepped forward. This one approached the challenge as she does everything. She focused on the immediate six inches in front of her. She did not know if she was three feet off the ground or thirty feet off the ground. And that is how my frailest girl made it to the top. She didn’t see a tower; she merely saw one handhold after another.
Then there was the girl who begged to come down when her fingers could touch the highest platform. We shouted, “Just reach up and touch it. You are right there.” Another classmate started climbing on another rope and gave her a pep talk as he passed her on his way up. Finally, she threw a leg over the platform and hauled her body up.
There was still one more student. She was from the neighboring school, and she was as petite as a second grader. She trembled as tears rolled down her face. She never looked at the teachers. She only saw The Tower. There was no getting out of this challenge. And she knew it.
The girl walked quietly to the tower and began climbing. And climbing. And climbing. She went deliberately. Silently. We weren't witnessing confidence, just pure determination. She made it all the way to the top, while some of our strongest students had stood on the lower platform and begged to come down.
I've thought a lot about those students and how they approached their challenge. The making of a climber is not so different from the making of a saint.
Some people who seem to have this whole faith-thing figured out tremble as they face the last, greatest fear. The shadow of death. There is humility in this moment.
For some, their entire family has set the standard, and it's almost as though they were made for this. They have been groomed to conquer this challenge. Like little Therese, whose parents and sisters were so holy that holiness was what one did, who one was, how one lived.
Still others are like the girl who moved from one handhold to another. The journey is do-able because the climb is never more than six inches higher. These are the ones who know how to give a yes to God. And another yes. And another yes. And then, it's done.
Some are like the girl who wanted to quit when the end was within sight - when they can touch the final landing and all it takes is one more heave upward. They, too, find the grace to make that final ascending move.
I think I’m like the smallest girl. The weakest. The youngest, spiritually speaking.
I'm the convert. I spend much of my life just trying to keep up with those who have longer spiritual strides. I'm not a cradle Catholic with a family line that seems to fit me for this task. I'm not able to compartmentalize the journey, taking in only today. I look at the tasks before me and tremble. I've been known to mutter to myself I don't think I can do this.
Dear, little girl. If you can make it to the top, then I can too. It's time to reach for the rope and just move higher.