© Thomas Lohnes – Getty Images

ROCK climbing, of the type you see in this photo, will always be an impossible dream for me. This is not because I’m afraid of heights, but because I’m out of training, and my physical condition, partly due to my age, leaves a great deal to be desired.

Last September I spent a few days on a spiritual retreat with Friar Giovanni, one of my best friends, in a religious house in the Val di Non, a scenic valley located in the Trentino region of northern Italy.

We wanted to take a break from the cares and worries of everyday life in order to spend more time with God in prayer and contemplation, and what better place to do this than in a mountain retreat center? Humanity everywhere has always seen mountains as special places, as symbols of mystical transcendence, as natural altars elevated toward God, who was sometimes said to dwell upon their peaks.

As part of our spiritual retreat, we therefore decided to dedicate the last day to an excursion to the Maddalene, a mountain range that connects South Tyrol to the Trentino region.

The day before the trip, sensing my uneasiness, Friar Giovanni reassured me that this enterprise was certainly within my physical possibilities.  “We’ll go by car all the way to Bordolona Chalet, which is 1,806 meters above sea level” he said, “and from there we’ll proceed on foot to the Alplaner Pass, which is at 2,424 meters. The path to the Pass is rocky and arduous in some places, but it will only take us a few hours to climb those 600 meters; so technically it’s easy enough.  From there we will then reach Lake Trenta in no time, and from that place we will enjoy a breathtaking view of the Alps which will repay us of all our efforts!”

The following day we left early in the morning, and as soon as we reached the chalet by car we started our ascent up the mountain.

Being younger and much fitter than me, Friar Giovanni proceeded confidently and quickly in front of me, while I had a hard time keeping up with him. However, he stopped regularly and cheered me along the way, which made the climb all that much easier for me. In the end we reached our goal: it was really like being in heaven. What peace and what colors! On one side the intense blue of the lake, on the other the ocher color of the high mountain meadows, and above us the emerald sky, dotted along the horizon with the shining white of the snow-clad mountain-tops surrounding us.

After an hour rest and a few prayers of gratitude for the stunning beauty we had been allowed to behold, we decided to make our way back, and it was in this phase of our journey that my troubles really began. My boots, which were not new, had been great during the uphill part of the trip, but now that we were walking downhill along that steep ravine, they became an instrument of torture because my toes were repeatedly jamming against the front of the boots. Fr. Giovanni tried to remedy this by tightening the laces as much as he could, but this brought only partial relief.

So my return trip became a sort of ‘Way of the Cross,’ and I could not prevent tears from running down my cheeks. Friar Giovanni, who was trying to make things easier for me, even had to support me physically at times so as to lessen the impact upon my toes. It also helped us a lot to pray the Rosary together. What a relief it was when, after three hours of intense suffering, we finally saw the chalet at the bottom of the valley!

In retrospect this experience was a great addition to our retreat because it reminded both of us that those who suffer should never be left alone. Friendship, being together, sincere affection and solidarity can contribute a great deal to making suffering much easier to bear. I also learned that physical and moral pain can be greatly alleviated if we become aware that Christ is always bearing the cross with us. Suffering is a hard path that can become lighter when it is sustained and illuminated by faith; a faith that saves us from falling into despair; a faith that trusts in friendship, especially with Jesus. His triumph on the third day, in the resurrection, shows us that no suffering, however intense, can prevail over the power of life and love.

When we finally reached Bordolona Chalet, I immediately removed my boots and went to the bathroom to wash my face. When I got back to the bar I found Friar Giovanni sitting at a table with two slices of blueberry pie and two cold drinks. He was smiling.


Updated on November 01 2020