Some friends and I went hiking in White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah Valley the other Sunday, and we stopped to take pictures at the foot of a tall cliff. Someone said we should climb it. I hesitated for a moment, then fell in behind the group. We made it to the top and were rewarded with glorious views of the surrounding valley.
Standing there on the cliff, I was flooded with memories of another climb, just six months before, in Israel. It was a climb that tested the limits of my endurance. At the time a college student with no mountaineering experience and a lifelong fear of heights, I’d gone along with friends, reluctant, but even more afraid of looking chicken in their eyes. Before I knew it, I’d found myself clinging to a steep, muddy mountainside, struggling for every foothold, wondering how I could possibly get up or down. I don’t know how I made it to the top. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
It all came about as a result of a theology course I was taking at Notre Dame. At spring break, our class went together to Jerusalem—we called ourselves pilgrims. While our college friends were off drinking piña coladas in the Bahamas, the 20 of us were getting up early every morning to visit ancient sites like Mary’s home in Nazareth and the mountain from which Jesus preached the Beatitudes.
We splashed in the brown Jordan River, visited the Bethlehem cave where Jesus was born, and hiked the rocky foothills of what Israelis call “the Galilee.” We toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site of Jesus’ tomb, and even sang Notre Dame’s alma mater—about Mary—at a church dedicated to her assumption.
Our schedule included a trip to Mount Tabor, where, according to the New Testament, Jesus met with Moses and Elijah and was transfigured before the eyes of three apostles. Mount Tabor rises suddenly and steeply from the surrounding plain; it is a place singular enough to be the scene of long-dead prophets’ appearing on earth.
We began our ascent on the paved road that curves up and around the mountain, but about halfway we realized our time was running out. A private English Mass had been scheduled for us at the top; we couldn’t afford to be late. Re-assessing, we elected to go off the trail and make directly for the summit. How hard could it be?
We started to climb. The slope seemed nearly vertical, and spring rains had left it slick. Even for the experienced hikers among us it presented a struggle. For me, it felt impossible. Every next step seemed an insurmountable hurdle, demanding all the strength and nerve and energy I had and more.
Yet somehow we got there. And after the all-consuming effort was over and we were seated in the cool, quiet Church of the Transfiguration, I was amazed at the change in my mind. I thought in wonder, “I just climbed this mountain!” All my misery and fear of half an hour before were gone, and I felt powerful and satisfied.
On the last day of the trip, our group went hiking again, this time through the beautiful Ein Gedi National Park. Our destination was the hidden waterfall that awaits the visitor at trail’s end, but on the way we got sidetracked exploring the river below. Soon we came to a high cliff overlooking a still, green pool. Israeli boys were taking turns jumping off the cliff into the waiting water.
The guys in our group glanced at each other and at the cliff-jumping boys. It was clear what they wanted to do. Our chaperones had fallen behind, and nothing stood in their way. Dropping their backpacks and shoes, they scrambled to the top of the cliff and one after another leapt into the water with whoops and hollers. The girls quickly followed. “Your turn, Tess!” someone called. But once again my fear of heights held me back. I lingered.
Then I remembered Mount Tabor, how hard it had been, and how glad I’d been that I’d done it. I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t take a turn. Quickly, without giving myself time for second thoughts, I ran and jumped.
The plunge was glorious. The water was freezing. I came up laughing and jubilant. I had done something I didn’t think I could do, and the feeling of accomplishment was pure joy.