Marriage is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, period. Parenting is second. I have no idea, nor do I think it worth my time, to consider what might be third. Nothing is even in the same realm.
But there are different kinds of hard.
Some of my best memories were pressed into snowy paths in the Rockies with my friends and brother on our annual ski trips to Winter Park. We would take whisky and matches as deep and high as we could into the dark woods behind our cabin, find a clearing, and then build a fire, sipping from the bottle and telling stories about each other under a star-dusted sky veiled with the mist of our breath.
The hikes were always hard on my body. My legs felt heavy as they churned the powder. My lungs burned in the thin air. At points I felt light-headed and would have to breathe deeply and drink from my water bottle.
I would joke to my companions about how fat and out of shape I was in a sort of passive and vaguely humorous whining. It was hard, and I felt the need to say something, but I knew a real complaint would be absurd at that point.
It would be absurd because, in reality, those hikes weren’t hard at all: after all, I was alive. Deeply alive, awake and aware, moving and moved, filled and thirsting. Whatever was hard about it was almost unnoticeable in the thick of all that realness.
As we hiked we would stop occasionally and catch our breath, sinking into snow drifts or leaning against pine trunks to let the burn drain from our thighs. The only noises were the deep breaths, muttered comments and laughter, and the static hiss that snowy woods have in deep winter.
And then we would keep moving.
When we found the right spot, we always knew it. I remember one of the first years, we found a frozen waterfall. The moonlight was violet as it crashed into the ice hanging like crystal gargoyles from its rocky cathedral, and we were silent for a moment as we took in these new colors and shapes.
We built our fire nearby, digging out a hollow space and piling up broken limbs and fallen branches and scattered twigs before we each nestled our bottoms into our own personal powder-hammock, moving only to throw logs into the orange and blue swirl.
And then we sat and talked and laughed and fell silent in turn, awash in a current of evergreen and aware that time was not the same here as it was in the cabin we had left, aware that this was different, sacred though outsiders might think it profane, aware that we had arrived and that whatever moments would be ours by this frozen creek in these high mountains in this little copse of firs were the good moments, the ones that stick, the ones we were hiking for all along.
When we are who we are made to be, nothing is hard. It might burn, we might need breaks, there might be winds that cut or feet that go numb but in the end nothing is hard when you are knee-deep in beauty and your nose can smell the nearness of heaven.
I look at a hopeless world, a world riddled with divorce and abusive priests and so lost that it turns to anything, anything, to give it a sense of direction and purpose again, and all I see is me on that hike if I decided to just think about the “hard”. I see me focusing on the tired muscles or hurting lungs, and I see me sitting on the side of that trail, just for a moment (of course I’ll have the energy to catch up after a little rest!), and I see myself getting caught up in the beauty of that one part of the trail, this particular tree or the way the moon gets caught in those branches or how that constellation fits between those clouds. And I see myself getting comfortable, and understandably so because this is not hard and look, the beauty! It is here too, not just wherever we were heading to!
And after a while I start to get cold. I feel the snow I’m sitting in seeping wet through my pants and the chill sweeping sharply through my gloves. And I see a smoky gray cloud smudging my view of the moon. And I feel the fear of remembering that there are animals out here I don’t understand, and the fear rising quickly into panic when my ears can no longer catch the distant fragments of my friends’ laughter.
And I can see myself standing and my legs are not refreshed like I thought they would be, only colder and stiff, and I can hear the sounds of my rumbling through the branches that catch at my coat as I follow their footsteps (but wait, is that even them?) and now I am alone and I am scared and I am not sure where they ended up because, after all, I’m just a flatlander and my friends were the ones who really knew where we were going, and I’m not even so sure how to get back to the cars and what was the point of this whole thing anyway?
And alone in those woods, it would be easy to think that my friends had left me, rather than remember it had been my decision to stop. And in my fear and anxiety and the sheer loneliness of being trapped somewhere between I might even learn to hate them for not being there. And I would decide I didn’t need them. And I would see the good of where I was, because there is good there too, and I would forget about last year’s trip and what that destination was like, and I would forget about the dreams I had about where we might end up this year, and I would forget why I was traveling in the first place, and I would slowly believe that this frozen spot in the middle of a long and uphill path was all I really needed anyway.
I would be lost and I would be cold and I would be scared but if I just wanted to survive, I would convince myself to just make the best of where I was.
And that would be it.
This is what has happened, I believe, to those whose catastrophic failures in their vocation are all too evident.
But I don’t believe that’s the end of the story, either.
I believe in a God who would come crashing through those woods in a blaze of warmth and light if I but whispered His name. I believe in a God who can overcome any of our failures, even the most terrible, even the most obvious, who can and will and wants nothing more than to come and rescue us from our cold prisons of self, and He would do so not because He wants us to know how lost we are and how incapable of saving ourselves (though of course we are and we won’t call on His name if we don’t admit it!), but because He wants to show us the path again, He wants to lead us forward, He wants to unite us with our lost friends and brothers in some crystalline courtyard of open sky and clean air and fire.
So even if we are not living our vocations yet, even if we are lost, even if we have stopped moving altogether and are trying our best to just get comfortable with where we left off, He will rouse us and reawaken us to the daydream of destination we had left beside the path.
But only if we ask.