Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Editorial: Between the Sea and Land

"All you mystics end up chasing skirts"- John Updike

It's been said that there are only two kinds of mystics in the world: those who favor oceans, and those who favor mountains. And those who choose the ocean have a lot going for them. There's no better metaphor for the power and majesty and awe of God. It also marks our destination: unity with the Father. We throw ourselves into and lose ourselves and are buoyed up by infinite waters. And it was a Medieval mystic, I believe, who said that the sum total of all the sins we can ever possibly commit is but a drop of water in the oceanic love of God.

But I count myself among those who contemplate the transformative majesterium of mountains. The Greeks put their gods on a mountain, and many religions before and after them. Moses climbed one, and Jesus, too. From mountains we get the Law, and a revelation of Christ and the prophets so brilliant that it could scarcely be seen. Oceans represent surrender to divinity; mountains mark the gifts God gives to us. To receive them, we need not drown ourselves in abasement. Rather, we must put one foot forward, and remember where we're going.

Mountains make us more of who we are. To hide a body, you dump it in the ocean. To expose a soul, you grapple with an incline. No one ever mounted Everest in the name of self-deception. Mountains rid us of pretension. Climbing stills the clamor of our minds.

It might seem haughty, all of this ascending grandeur. Behold the mountaineer! and all the kingdoms of the world spread beneath him. But the true enthusiast knows that she does not go up to heaven: the mountain does. All we do is follow. Climbing is just an athletic form of walking- and when, I ask you, did Jesus ever swim? Look at the lengths he goes to to avoid it: boats and stilling storms and an entire water-bug routine.

Peter, Peter, ye of little faith, pick up your mat and walk! Christ eschews the Natatorium, a Jew until the end. It's all Mount Olivet for him. I suppose I prefer the mountain because surrender is the one thing God has never asked of me.

Mountains are the ragged edges of creation's torn wound. The planet's groaning for salvation must surely be of tectonic magnitude. They've been put there by and for our faith, our hope for volcanic transformation. What is the word that Earth speaks, to shake the 'scapes of the Pacific Rim? To cause the Cascades to leap into the sea?

Of course, I've not been often exposed to mountains so raw as those. My Pennsylvania offers a more venerable and ancient kind. Rain has washed the scraping parts away. But these too offer mystical experience. The Alleghenies extend their slopes for half a mile or more: creation on a slant. Because the tops are flat, they offer scarce vistas. The soul of these mountains is their slope, the winding paths that take us up.

Climb enough of these, and you realize that a mountain is not an argument. You do not leap your way unto the top. Rather, you propose a route. Then you take what the mountain offers. Sometimes you go sideways- dangerous because it's always easier to go down than up. Descent always offers its seductions. But this is a discussion, and you listen to the sweeter voice within, the you that's already up there, eating lunch.

So you go up, up- not because you're anything great, but because you're walking honestly and the ground can't help but rise beneath your feet.


Anne G G said...

Very lovely. Falls into sweet harmony with my exhausting hike this past weekend (the exhaustion, of course, was vital to the experience).

However, my inner mystic, like my inner vacationer, would most likely argue in favor of the ocean.

brd said...

Very interesting thoughts. Coming to the end of 2 weeks at the edge of the great Atlantic, and having recently reread Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," I think I could make a case for the struggle and exposure that can be part of the oceanic experience. But the symbol and the development is, without doubt, very different from mountain experience. I think I would agree that the mountain better reflects the overall Christian experience than does the ocean, for the journey does seem to have paths and markers in a way that the sea motif does not allow for.

Anne G G said...

The reasons you both give are the reasons I'd tend to pick ocean over mountain - in my mind's eye, the mountain is the struggle toward God, or God's lesson, or God's gift; the ocean is God. Depthful, with mysterious motion and a life beneath belied both by its calm stills and its plunging waves. Until we're cast into it (the destination, as Ben points out?), we have only an inkling of its infinitude.

Curious Monk said...

in the interest of full disclosure, it probably does bear mentioning that i just cannot swim. and i don't mean "not well" i mean, "not at all".

so when i hear surf, a part of myself thinks, "it's coming to get me!" and the destination seems final indeed.

so no, i'm not much fun at the beach. but given my low center of gravity, exquisite sense of balance, and compact muscle mass, i am exceptionally sure-footed.

i was the kid who saw rocks and said, "let's go that way!"

Anne G G said...

Hmm. Sounds like the reasons you're a good hiker may overlap with the reasons swimming isn't your bag - I can't imagine compact muscle mass is great for buoyancy (though, for me, muscle is pretty much a concept I just have to imagine - which is maybe why I float so great!).

As for me, I trip and fall down when I hike. Sometimes aalllllllll the way down (not down the mountain, but flat on my face). Last time we hiked, I didn't fall, and I noticed about 3/4 of the way through that I hadn't had so much as a major stumble. I opened my mouth to mention this fact to Jeff - and then shut it immediately. No need to jinx a good thing.

I still like hiking, but about mid-way, my mood can get pretty mean.

Curious Monk said...

Ha! One of the very best parts of hiking is the misery!

Usually, this happens for me when i haven't planned at all, and have wandered off even the animal trails into some disastrous bog/thicket/blowdown area without water or food or adequate daylight.

in other words, more or less every single time. i'm always pleased to get myself out of these things, though. and always have.

i do make it a point to never take anyone with me. i think they'd go nuts.