One of the events at the recent St. Martin’s Academy FORT Leadership Camp was an individually timed race through our woodland obstacle course. The boys lined up at the start, and one at a time sprinted through the course accompanied by a staff member keeping time and yelling encouragement. In a matter of minutes, the boys scaled log walls, crawled through ditches, crossed creeks and bridges and finished the course with a sprint to the final obstacle, a climbing rope suspended from one of the biggest oak trees on campus. Time stopped when the boy slapped the branch to which the rope was tied.
Seems pretty straightforward, but there is a catch. By the time most of the boys had navigated through the entire obstacle course, they were exhausted and running on fumes. Jumping for a grip on the rope, many of them discovered that their arms might as well be branches—try as they might, there was just no way they could convince their fatigued limbs to climb the measly 15ft between them and the end of the course. In these cases, the staff would ensure that each boy made an honest attempt on the rope for 30 seconds, and then, for an additional 30 second penalty, allow him to drop and do 15 pushups to finish the course. Climbing the rope was clearly the fastest way to finish the course, but many boys achieved decent scores by taking the penalty and doing the pushups.
But for one boy named Charlie, the rope climb was a challenge he was not willing to give up on.
Charlie cruised toward the final obstacle with one of the fastest times that afternoon—he was a serious contender for our top score. In the practice runs he had made good progress on the rope, but it was definitely a challenge for him and it would probably save him time to take the penalties and pushups. But for Charlie, something in the challenge that rope offered was irresistible. He made a run for it, jumped and with two good pumps of his arms and legs was almost halfway up in a matter of seconds. But just then, the fatigue he had left behind caught up with him. He hung there in space looking up at the branch and with shaking arms made another upward lunge. It bought him a couple of inches but then his exhausted legs started to lose the rope and he slid back down a few inches. About this time most would dismount the rope, knock out the pushups and be done in a few seconds.
But Charlie wasn’t done.
Gasping for air he inched up the rope—one lunge, then another. For long stretches of time he would hang onto the rope trying to catch his breath and looking up at the branch just a few feet over his head. Surely he knew that time was ticking by. His arms and legs were shaking, wooden, and getting weaker by the second though he convinced them to drag him upward another couple of feet. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute. He was three quarters of the way there and had been on the rope for nearly two minutes when slowly and unwillingly he scraped down the rope to the ground…and did his 15 pushups.
Charlie finished with the worst time of the event—and earned everyone’s respect in the process. While he was hanging from the rope his fellow campers were watching with acute attention, cheering him on, and alive to the beauty and vitality of the struggle they were witnessing. Not every story ends with improbable victory, and in one sense, this story doesn’t either; Charlie did not make it up the rope. But in the most important sense Charlie did win a tremendous victory. He imitated Our Lord in making strength out of weakness. What appeared externally to be a failure was an invisible, if painful, victory.
I couldn’t have been more pleased that his peers were watching the whole time. Charlie set an example of courage, determination, and grit that we would all do well to imitate on whatever rope we find ourselves.
Those Catholic Men.