This past week a colleague and I went on a short but brisk hike up the steep one-mile path to the top of Mt. Beacon, in Beacon, New York. It’s a great hike for the novice who doesn’t mind some rough and rocky terrain, and offers a breathtaking and gorgeous panoramic view of the Hudson River and beyond, including the Shawangunk Mountains all the way to the Catskills to the north.
I realized as I clambered up the trail that it had been three decades since I did any hiking like this; all of my adult life, from college on, has been lived in the flat land of the Midwest. And so I found on the hike that I was flooded with memories of the last time I had scaled similar terrain, which was at least 30 years ago, on the slopes of Mt. Princeton in the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies. I was working that summer at a youth camp run by the Young Life organization, called Frontier Ranch. The year prior I had given my life to Jesus Christ at the end of a camp experience at Frontier, and like many kids who had similar experiences, I felt called to return to serve for a month as volunteer staff for the camp.
And I realized as I trod over that rocky path on Mt. Beacon that the hiking memories were really inseparable from the memories of my religious experience. I cannot hike, or be in the mountains, it seems, without an accompanying deep and powerful awareness of my commitment to Jesus Christ and the presence of God.
It’s fitting, I think. Images of climbing and ascent are well-established in our faith tradition, be it Dante’s mountain of Purgatory, Thomas Merton’s use of the mountain image, the journey toward sanctification in holiness traditions, the architecture of our soaring cathedrals, even an old spiritual like, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Though especially now in the wake of the Modern Age we no longer understand God to be “up,” the notion remains embedded in our collective unconscious, and it’s hard not to associate ascending with a sense of approaching the divine. And admittedly, it is a deeply fulfilling and meaningful spiritual feeling; I realized I’ve missed that feeling on my own journey, too grounded in flat land.
All this is to say that it occurred to me that that hike was of much greater value than I could have imagined when I set out for Beacon that day. I have a new commitment for my practice of spiritual devotion: get out and hike more often. The Hudson Valley region is full of little mountain ranges and therefore a variety of opportunities on the spiritual journey to get back in touch and in tune with the presence of God in Christ that comes from outdoor journeys, and especially from climbing. As the weather gets warmer, I hope my thoughts serve as inspiration for you who read these words, as well, to “go higher, higher,” in devotion to our Lord.
The Rev. Bob Anderle serves as pastor of Scotchtown Presbyterian Church in Middletown.