My muscles ached and my breath came in shallow jerks. I stood perpendicular to the face of the cliff, a rock-climbing harness round my waist, staring 50 feet down to the ground. This, apparently, was rappelling “Australian style.” Australians, I thought to myself, are nuts.
It was my third day participating in the two-week summer program at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., the school I had long wanted to attend. W.C.C. offers an outstanding liberal arts curriculum, steeped in the Great Books and Catholic tradition. It has a close-knit, vibrant, faith-filled community. It exists among mountains and horses. What more could I ask for? But, just to be sure, I signed up for their high school summer program, called Powerful Experience of Adventure and Knowledge, or PEAK, to get a taste of college life.
I expected to be challenged at PEAK; I did not expect to be walking face-first down cliffs. After a few grueling minutes, with the patient coaching of my counselor and a fellow student down below, I reached the ground in one piece. Unbuckling myself from the harness, a feeling of raw humility washed over me. I hate making mistakes. In general, I avoid situations where I will look bad. But up on that cliff, all my protective emotional layers were stripped away, leaving me panicked and weak in sight of everyone. I was not self-sufficient; I needed help. The realization stung, but only for a moment. The next instant I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my wonderful ground team. Their firm encouragement pulled me through as strongly as my harness and rope.
It was not only hanging off cliffs that humbled me. The classes were just as challenging, in a different way. Our reading list spanned millennia, from Plato and Socrates to the Gospel of Mark to the American Constitution. The professors pushed us to grapple with such ageless ideas as liberty, justice and freedom of conscience. Our American history class, taught by the college president, Dr. Kevin Roberts, was particularly memorable. The day we studied the Bill of Rights, he declared himself tyrant of the classroom. But being a merciful tyrant, he continued, he would allow us to retain three individual rights—if we could choose them unanimously in half an hour. For the next 30 minutes, 18 high school students pressed round the blackboard, eagerly and sometimes heatedly discussing natural rights. (We ended up choosing the right to freedom of religion, the right to bear arms and the right to trial by jury, with freedom of speech as a fiercely contested runner-up.)
But there was another type of humility at Wyoming Catholic, one that did not come from being tested physically or academically, but in relationships. Christian relationships require humble love, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Our counselors, who were current students or recent graduates of the college, radiated this kind of love. At lunch they shared tables with us like friends despite our differences in age and experience, and in the wilderness they guided us and kept us safe like true leaders. They joyfully taught us new skills while never boasting of their own. At the end of two weeks I knew I was going to miss them as much as the friends I had made among my peers.
Finally, everything we did during PEAK was grounded in a complete sense of submission to God. Every day we rose before 7 a.m. for morning prayer at the parish church, a mere two-minute walk from the dorms. At noon we attended Mass, and in the evenings the church stayed open for adoration and confession. Prayer life mingled with nonchurch activities. We prayed before classes, before meals, before and after outdoor adventures.
During our weekend backpacking trip, one of the college chaplains, Father Chris, hiked out with us to celebrate Mass in the wilderness. I will not forget that Sunday morning. The rising July sun glared in our eyes, and the huge rock outcrop on which we knelt was rough and uneven. And yet as Father Chris presided at the liturgy from the boulder-turned-altar, I felt more focused than I had during any other Mass that week. We had no pews or kneelers or air-conditioning—nothing man-made for the comfort of man. Everything was God’s. From the lichen on the rock to the pine trees, to the icy mountain river and the blinding blue sky, everything that morning shouted God’s glory.
A favorite expression at Wyoming Catholic is “wisdom in God’s country.” And now I understand why. But even more than wisdom, the lesson I took to heart most deeply was that of humility. After all, as the psalmist sings, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). During PEAK, before I could start learning anything else, I had to learn humility—in body, in mind, in spirit and in my relationships. So maybe, then, walking headfirst down that cliff wasn’t nuts. Perhaps it made me a little wiser.