A "mountaintop experience" is a figure of speech describing when one feels extremely close to God — much in the manner of Peter, James and John as they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration high on a mountain.
Matt Flanigan now can relate to that expression more literally than he’d ever imagined.
Flanigan, a parishioner of St. Matthew in Livonia, was among more than three dozen people from this area who scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, during an expedition in late February and early March.
"Very quickly you learn there’s a divine hand guiding this thing," Flanigan recalled about reaching at the peak. "You look around at the vastness and beauty, and think, ‘Who else but a loving God could have created this?’"
Flanigan was afforded the spectacular view thanks to an effort known as "Journeys of Inspiration" that brought together 41 hikers ranging in age from 23 to 73. He said the idea had originally been put forth by Rick French, owner of Pack, Paddle and Ski Corp. in South Lima, which organizes such expeditions. The Kilimanjaro trip would serve as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in Rochester, for which Flanigan is capital-campaign director.
"He said, ‘Only on one condition — you go on the hike,’" Flanigan said, adding that French’s proposal was one "which I accepted immediately."
From there, many hikers and sponsors got on board, including several hikers from St. Matthew Parish. A send-off Mass took place at St. Matthew on Feb. 17, with 25 Kilimanjaro climbers from various faith backgrounds in attendance.
"It was a very, very moving service," said Flanigan, who is the former director of Camp Stella Maris.
Flanigan said participants addressed their challenge eagerly, spending most of the previous year training locally. Then again, nothing in the Rochester Diocese can compare to Kilimanjaro, located in northeastern Tanzania. The inactive volcano is the African continent’s highest peak at 19,343 feet. Hikers went through five climate zones during the six-day climb, going from wearing shorts and T-shirts in 80-degree weather at base camp to coping with 15-degree, windy conditions at the summit. Flanigan acknowledged these less-than-ideal settings presented ongoing trials.
"A number of us were, quite frankly, challenged by tent living, keeping things organized, missing our friends and family. It was not the hiking. That was the easy part," said Flanigan, 46, who was joined on the excursion by his wife, Charmagne, and brother, Patrick, while his two daughters stayed back home. He said another concern was "the unknown — no guarantee we were going to get there," which he likened to the plight of those who face cancer.
On the other hand, he said the struggles were offset by such moments as looking down on the nearby community of Moshe and watching the lights getting farther and farther away each night, and looking down on lightning storms rather than up.
Most of the hikers, including Flanigan, were inexperienced. Even so, he said 39 of 41 reached at least one of the three peaks, with most making it up to the highest peak, Uhuru, on the volcano Kibo, "which is phenomenal. It’s more likely that one-quarter wouldn’t make it to one of the three points at all." Flanigan credited the leadership of French and the mutual support of group members, who freely shared their supplies with each other.
Many of the participants are cancer survivors; others have loved ones affected by the disease. For instance, Flanigan’s father died of cancer, and his brother, sister and mother are all survivors. He observed that many hikers carried rolled-up posters in their backpacks with the names of special people listed on them.
According to Flanigan, hikers and sponsors had raised some $180,000 for the American Cancer Society by mid-March and he expected the total to reach $200,000. That large amount "just underscores the passion people have about this cause," he said. Also included in this initiative was "Journeys of Solutions," through which many locally donated school supplies were delivered by hikers to impoverished children at the Bulati School in Tanzania
Flanigan said the overall experience was so positive that he’s already arranging for a similar group expedition in February 2009. It’s bound to provide more stirring memories, which he compared to his wedding day and when his children were born.
"That’s the kind of emotion you feel. It was one of the top emotional moments in my life," he remarked.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To make donations and learn more about the Kilimanjaro trip, visit www.journeysofinspiration.com.