To Reach Higher Peaks

 

For the LORD is the great God, the great king over all gods, whose hand holds the depths of the earth; who owns the tops of the mountains. Psalm 95

A little while ago Kelly, Caitlin and I prayed together using a standard sheet of white paper and a set of multicolored pens. Kelly’s instructions were simple: draw whatever you are moved to draw through prayer. This is what I came up with:

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It is a result of both prayer and a more mundane frustration I had been experiencing. When I drew this, we had already traveled to several places that were framed by mountains and hills. Kylemore Abbey, Our Lady’s Island, Lourdes in France. Each time I was able to gaze upon towering peaks with their promise of 360 degree views, fresh air, and the adrenaline that accompanies standing at such a great height. What I couldn’t do was actually climb them. Imagine Christmas morning with presents all around the tree but you’re not allowed to open them. That’s the feeling.

When we were in Lourdes, France I spent an entire afternoon trying to find a way to climb something. The problem was that pretty much every bit of the area was private property with fences or walls. I love climbing mountains; I have no desire to trespass over fences. Eventually I found a spot I could get onto one of the mountains and I began to climb. It was wet and slippery and covered in thorny plants but I managed to snap this picture:

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What isn’t immediately evident is that this is only about halfway up. It had taken me so long to begin that I had to start heading back down if I was going to be able to meet everyone else at the appointed time. I was so close. Lourdes had already been one of the most spiritually enriching experiences of my life. I had encountered all of my favorite forms of prayer: Eucharist, scripture, the rosary, music and praise, stations of the cross, lighting a candle at the grotto, reconciliation. Climbing this mountain was going to be the finishing touch, one more way to experience God. Instead, I clambered back down sweaty, muddy, tired, and disappointed.

As a sort of substitute I bought a print of this painting and hung it on the wall of my room:

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I first encountered Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog while discussing ‘the sublime’ in a music class. The sublime doesn’t refer to a simple quality of pleasantness. The sublime is a feeling at encountering something so grand that you are filled with an awe that sits at the cusp of terror. This painting captures the sublimity that is unique to mountain tops. Standing above the entire world one feels at the same time incredibly large and impossibly small. I have conquered the world but it is infinitely outside my grasp. I stand here in a moment caught between falling to the depths of the earth and taking flight into heaven itself. The painting has the correct point of view. We don’t see his face because it isn’t about the man who has climbed. It is about pausing and gazing for a moment at what we can never understand: the glory of God in creation.

I finally got my peak when House of Brigid Dublin met House of Brigid Wexford in Glendalough. Glendalough is the site of a monastic community founded in 6th Century by St. Kevin and it is enclosed by some of the most beautiful natural landscape I have ever seen. A number of us went on a hike that took us up and around the surrounding mountains.

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We stopped for a moment at different spots to take pictures and then we continued on. The trail led all the way back down to the bottom on the other side of the lake. Again, I was disappointed. I had waited months to get to the top of a mountain and when I do we take our pictures and leave. I even had the thought that it would have been great to have brought tents and stay up there all day and night. But of course going back down is half the point. The thing with mountain peaks is that they, by definition, do not allow you to climb any higher. If you ever want to climb again, you have to go down at some point. Like Peter at the Transfiguration I wanted to stay, but I had to go back down to my life and the real climb. Like the little stick figure I drew on the side of the mountain, I am still in the middle of the journey. There is only one true peak: Christ. Whether it is perched on top of the mountains of Europe or sitting in a coffee shop in Dublin I look forward to every chance I get to reach higher peaks.