At six a.m. the clouds are kissing the highest rim of Mount LeConte near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A bright morning sun is exposing the green ridges of her ribs. She is just awakening. There is a great stillness this early. I can only hear some bird call and the wet dew falling from nearby leaves to the forest floor.
The daily summer rains are done for the moment and blue skies are peeping through a few open spaces in the morning clouds, illuminating the low clouds that fill the valley of Gatlinburg. Yes it really does look like smoke rising up from the mountains.
On our first morning in that beauty I wanted to get out there and experience that mountain forest spread across Mount LeConte. So I got to strike out on a hike for several miles with my brother Roger and sister-in-law Kay. Striding up some steep inclines took my breath away, a sure sign I am older and not as in shape as I was in my thirties. Crossing a raging stream on a thick wooden plank raised a fear of falling. And passing between giant boulders through dense forest felt like walking where God walks.
In this gorgeous setting, for no apparent reason, I began remembering the faces of our street friends, and one in particular. Erin’s smile last week stood out in a room full of people weighed down by abject poverty. Her beautiful chocolate face and short hair dyed blonde were surpassed by her broad, unlikely smile. That really stirred my curiosity.
I sat down beside her during the meal our volunteers were serving and said, “So I just have to ask about that amazing smile in this challenging situation.” She smiled again and answered immediately, without pausing to think: “Gratitude.” “Wow,” I responded. “I am always amazed when people here tell me they are ‘blessed,’ despite the hardness of living on the street. So tell me about gratitude.”
She replied with an unreasonable explanation: “I’m grateful for the warmth and humidity.” Since I am usually disgusted by the same I answered with almost disbelief, “Really!” Erin said, “After you have lived through Chicago winters and felt that wind slashing through your jacket and right down to the bone, you appreciate the warmth of New Orleans.” Her gratitude was real. She had been transformed by her Chicago winter experiences and now she was really grateful for this moment: a little air conditioning on a hot July day, a meal, a shelter voucher to get off the street for the night, some toiletries, and the chance to share her smile. It was all she had, and it was more than enough.
Despite what seemed like an unbearable situation, Erin was as content in that moment as I was walking among the gods of the mountain forest. Her contentment was deeper than her situation, whereas mine was all about the circumstance I found myself in. Maybe that connection of deep contentment was what led me to remember Erin’s smile during my walk. And then the rains returned. Soon we were getting soaked as the biggest drops fell through the canopy of evergreen trees above us. But the cool wetness was refreshing. Instead of complaining about being drenched I was cherishing the visceral experience. I actually preferred the cool wetness to the New Orleans heat.
And then it hit me: What Erin felt in her gratitude for the warmth of New Orleans, in place of a Chicago winter, was like my gratitude for the forest’s cool wetness in place of the New Orleans heat. I was feeling a contentment too. Remembering Erin’s smile on a walk through a wet mountain forest became my teacher.
I hope I will see her again so I can finish that conversation, thank her for that smile, and tell her she is my teacher. I’d like to tell her how I learned to be content while getting drenched on a hike across the forest known as Mount LeConte.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, also available as a Kindle book.