Editor’s Note: With sponsorship from Multiplication Network, The Banner’s 2022 Young Adults Writing Contest took place this summer, with 35 young adults submitting essays on the topic “What gives you hope?” This is the third-place winner. You can read the other winning essays here.
Plastic walking sticks and hushed pilgrims poke through the gap where the hermitage’s rock melts into the hillside. A green man stretches out alongside the enclave, his metal eyes glued wide in unchanging awe. Backpacks press by me as I follow his gaze up and up and up until I too bend backward like a tree humbled by the wind. In the shower of afternoon light, I squint at the arc of leaves dancing beneath the thinly painted clouds. Past the trees, a tapestry of blue swaddles the stars, and a shiver runs up my back.
The peace, the whispered praises, and the beauty of God’s creation minister to me in a way very few preachers can, and, after two weeks in the concrete maze of Florence discussing Inferno and Purgatorio, my class’s retreat to the Italian countryside feels like a jailbreak. My mind drifts to Dante’s final thoughts as he leaves Purgatory, eager to be finished with the striving and “climb the stars” (Purgatorio, XXXIII.145). Perched in the hillside hermitage of Saint Francis, I can’t imagine returning to the city. My heart resonates with Dante, and, for a moment, I envy the fate of the metal monk who lies forever gazing into the sky.
I turn around as another tourist pushes past me muttering in German, and my stirring spirit quiets. Through the walls of trees, I glimpse a patchwork of pastel homes, hills, and creeping cars. Assisi. The monks here spend every waking minute of their retreat praying for the world, and as I see the city, I am reminded of their purpose. A gentle wind plays at my cheek, and a sigh settles on my chest. This mountain top experience is not meant to be the end of my journey—it is a stepping stone, a reassurance of God’s nearness that prepares me for my return to the valley. My hand falls open next to my leg, and I ask God to take it. My other hand closes in a fierce, white-knuckled grip around this peace, and I pray that when I return to the valley and fumble through the dark, I will remember God’s promises. I pray that I will remember Christ’s life, death, and calling to a greater peace for all of God’s children.
I close my eyes, settle in his promises, and name it hope.
A month and 5,000 miles from the Eremo delle Carceri later, my eyes trace the clouds in the bright Milwaukee sky and remember the promises twinkling behind it. Through the thick metal school doors, I hear laughter, a pulsing speaker, and a chorus of voices singing: Lord, you are good and your mercy endureth forever.
Nervous energy rolls off of me as I sway to the rhythm of the song.
People from every nation and tongue, from generation to generation.
I glance at the paper sign in the window once more where a single sentence rests in Times New Roman—“Center for Urban Teaching: Teachers enter here.” I try the locked door again and shove down the anxiety spiking in my stomach. An opportunity I found in my spam email folder, my summer job in Milwaukee’s inner city schools is a mystery to me. From college classes and the internet, I learned about the valley of urban education. Generational poverty, school dropout rates, and lifetimes of trauma challenge the classroom, and now more than ever children need older people to pour the love of God into them.
My eyes find their way upward again, and I think of my visit to the Eremo. In the closing lines of The Divine Comedy, after ascending through heaven, Dante Algheri says the same Love that moves the sun and the stars so moves his desires and will. In a graying school parking lot beneath the rays of the noonday sun, I feel that Love bubbling within me. Zealousness, like that which Paul writes about in Titus 2, rises in tandem.
Behind the expanse of blue, I know Love continues to move the stars. His promises remain just as steadfast for me as they did for Abraham so many years ago.
The heavy school door clicks open, and the music gets louder.
We worship you. Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
I lift up a prayer for the summer, my coworkers, and all of the students stumbling into our classrooms and the embrace of Jesus.
We worship you for who you are.
I turn to the person at the door, her eyes glowing in welcome.
You are good.
My spirit leaps as the room erupts in cheers and whoops. I smile at the woman in return, and Love propels me forward.