High summer, and the earth’s riches abound. Full, dark green leafy trees shade the vines that obscure our white picket fence. Barren winter seems a mere thought right now.Yet, the Scripture reading offers us manna in the wilderness. Wilderness — ha! Wilderness is January and February, here up north, followed by March, with its obligatory blizzard or ice storm. Manna in the wilderness — in the summer?
Then, I remember my father-in-law, Bill Wolf. A professor of theology, Bill was once a Maine guide. Having climbed Mount Marcy and Mount Katahdin in the East, Bill became the designated parent for hikes. In the summers, he would lead his three boys and their friends on trails in the nearby Berkshires.
The legend about Bill was this: It would be a hot summer day, and Bill and his charges would trudge up a mountain path. Over a bridge, following the curvy trail past a stand of birches, alongside a patch of lady slippers, up an old streambed littered with rocks they would climb. Children were sweating, one or two running ahead, others hanging back. Soon, inevitably, some hiker would stop, sit down on a rock, gulp a swallow from a canteen and complain: “I can’t go any further! I wanna stop!”
Bill would say, “Oh, you can do it. I know you can. It’s not too much farther, just up the trail a bit.” Then he would pause. “You know, there’s a Howard Johnson’s at the top!”
A Howard Johnson’s at the end of the trail? Now, Bill was not trying to deceive. They had an understanding, an inside joke. If you were old enough to be hiking with Bill, you were old enough to know that there was no Ho-Jo’s on the summit of Haystack.
Bill’s words and their good-natured intent would perk up the weary so the party could press on, spirits lifted. The mountaintop promised relief, rest and nourishment — maybe even a treat. Indeed, at the end of the climb, a feast awaited: sustenance of substance — not 26 flavors, but spiritual food. For Bill, who valued the natural world and worshiped God the creator with all his being, knew something about what kind of food they would find.
Manna from heaven — a treat for the eyes to nourish the soul. There, the delight of hills laid out before them; crisp, blue-sky air; the smell of musty pines; clouds dancing above — all in the company of friends who spent summers together playing softball and camping out under the stars.
Years later, when Bill’s grandchildren and we, their parents, would go on a hiking expedition — usually a modest one — inevitably, again, a tired trudger would stop and complain: “I just can’t go any further! I wanna stop!” We would say, “Keep on going! We know you can do it. Don’t forget — there’s a McDonald’s at the top!” They knew and we knew: There were no shakes and golden arches.
Instead, once more, manna from heaven! The most humble, squashed peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich became the centerpiece of a banquet laid out on wax paper, balanced near moss on a sun-scorched rock. Patches of wild blueberries, succulent and tiny sweet morsels lay ripe, as plentiful as manna sent from God. We feasted on a view of luscious proportions — the Atlantic Ocean spotted with small islands and tiny boats. In the words of the psalmist: “So mortals ate the bread of angels; he [God] provided for them food enough.”
God rains down manna from heaven at different times and places all our lives, for the wilderness stretches occur in any season. Inevitably, we find ourselves in difficult territory.
Climbing a mountain, a real or spiritual one, demands strength and patience, and we need divine encouragement and soul food.
As our daughters grew older and less inclined to climb, we found it fruitless to drag them up a mountain. One summer, though, their cousins appeared, two boys of their age and temperament. Suddenly, whiners became mountain goats. They scurried to the top, along the ridge, and down the next trail before the adults crested the peak.
The going gets better when you know you’re not alone. Manna in the wilderness came to a hungry, tired, discouraged group of people . It may not be Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s at the top, but the feast is still a feast, there’s plenty to go around, and the richness of it is in direct proportion to the sharing of the moment, the view, the chocolate bars, the blueberries, particularly when we acknowledge God’s hand. God rained bread from heaven for God’s people wandering in the wilderness; God provides for us, too, in community — on mountaintops or in the Eucharist.
Bill Wolf knew how to navigate the wilderness and trusted in God’s spiritual provisions along the way. In my mind I can see him grinning with delight at his charges feasting on the mountain — the children he led then, now grown as adults. From his place at the heavenly banquet he reminds us that God always sends manna from heaven. Mortals eat the food of angels. And the best is yet to come.
This reflection, written by the Rev. Julietta Wolf-Foster, a priest and writer in the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., first appeared in Episcopal Life.