At the Heights, everybody becomes your friend

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By Topher Aderhold

Topher Aderhold is the Camp Director at Annunciation Heights.

On the feast of the holy archangels, we set off before the sun, beginning our hike at 4 a.m. The moon was bright and the sky was clear, so we turned off our headlamps and walked by the light of the moon. It’s a groggy, but necessary way to begin such an adventure. From time to time, the moon shadows cast by the thick forest made finding our footing a bit of a challenge. But we journeyed on, because there was a mountain ahead of us, and we were determined to reach its summit.

While 14ers are all the rage in Colorado, our sights were set on Mt. Meeker, a mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park that rises to the heights of a paltry 13,911 feet. Meeker’s summit is more than two-and-a-half miles above sea level, but because it is 89 feet shy of 14,000, Meeker is overshadowed, figuratively and literally, by Longs Peak. Towering to 14,259 feet, the highly recognizable snaggletooth summit of Longs is only .7 miles away from Meeker.

A couple of hours into our journey, as we stopped for a drink of water and a snack, we glanced back towards the east. The first rays of sun cresting over the far away mountains were painting the sky with glorious reds and oranges. The face of the mountains to our west were illuminated by the rising sun — it was as if the grey rock face was transformed into a massive canvas upon which the vibrant colors of the sunrise were splashed.

As the journey continued, we noticed that the trees were shrinking in size, and before long, there were trees no more. Soon after the sun began to rise, we reached Chasm Lake, a beautiful mountain lake at the base of Longs and Meeker. The scene took my breath away, or perhaps the high elevation was hindering my breathing — either way, I was in awe.

Countless wordsmiths, philosophers, and mountaineers of yesteryear have waxed poetically about what draws man towards the mountains, towards the heights. John Muir wrote about it extensively, and Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest, had a thing or two to say as well. I love what Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati said about the mountains: “The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.” However, as we left Chasm Lake behind, and the hike turned more into a scramble over perilous rock fields and climbs up vertical rock faces, it was the words of Mon-signor Joseph Bosetti — the founder of Camp St. Malo — that came to mind: “Above 10,000 feet, everybody becomes your friend.”

There’s truth in his words, and Msgr. Bosetti knew well the experience of being above 10,000 feet. He was born and raised in the Italian Alps in the late 1800s, and later, in 1915, as a priest serving in the Archdiocese of Denver, he founded Camp St. Malo. Over the many years he over-saw Camp St. Malo, he led countless campers up to the summits of Twin Sisters, Mt. Meeker, and Longs Peak, just to name a few. Oftentimes, high atop the mountains, Msgr. Bosetti would celebrate Mass for the kids, giving them an opportunity to better hear the voice of Christ.

There were seven of us in our traveling party that day. We began the hike as friends, certainly, but there’s something special about the way such a challenge can bring people together and deepen friendships. We were in this journey together, and together we would reach the summit. The higher and higher we were above 10,000 feet, the more and more support we needed and had for each other.

It took us approximately six hours to reach the summit. For several minutes, we stood atop Meeker’s breezy summit. From such high heights, we soaked up the magnificent view of Rocky Mountain National Park — it was a profound reminder of our smallness compared to the power and magnificence of God.

After taking in the view, we scurried down the mountain, slowly and safely choosing our footing. Arriving back at the trailhead, nearly 12 hours after we’d begun our day, I thought about another challenge before us, a mountain of the figurative variety.

The Archdiocese of Denver recently purchased an old youth camp in Estes Park; an incredible commitment to the future of the Church in northern Colorado. With the help of the archdiocese, our Executive Director, Kyle Mills, has laid out an awesome vision for the bold and exciting mission of Annunciation Heights.

The seven of us, along with a half-a-dozen more, serve with Kyle in various capacities, as we undertake climbing the mountain of transforming this old property into a bright shining beacon of hope and joy for the Archdiocese of Denver. Providentially, Annunciation Heights is located just two miles down the road from Bosetti’s Camp St. Malo, where the stunningly beautiful Chapel on the Rock stands at the base of Mt. Meeker.

Plans for our inaugural Summer Camp, which will be held in 2019, are underway. Between mid-June and late-July, we’ll be offering five, one-week sessions. To serve on our Summer Camp Staff, we’ll be hiring approximately 30 college students — young adults that are fun, outgoing, great with children, and passionate about their Catholic faith. Not just a youth camp, we’re thrilled to be offering several Family Camps in 2019, as well. More details about both of these exciting opportunities will be posted soon to our website.

Already this fall, hundreds of students from Catholic schools have joined us at Annunciation Heights for environmental education retreats through the John Paul II Outdoor Lab. Additionally, over the past couple of months, many guest groups have found Annunciation Heights to be a wonderful place to host events and retreats.

From time to time, the challenge before us can be overwhelming. However, there’s something special about the way such a challenge can deepen friendships and bring people together. We journey on, because there is a mountain ahead of us, and we are determined to reach its summit.

Mary Undoer of Knots, pray for us!

To learn more about AH, please visit: annunciationheights.org

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.