Monday, June 27, 2011

The Heart of Monadnock

A few weeks ago I joined some teacher friends and their class of high school students on a climb up Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.


I had attempted to climb Monadnock once before, but on that day a rainstorm blew in as we were preparing for the final push to the top, and so we turned back without reaching the summit. I was determined to succeed in my second attempt at the mountain, which tops out at 3,165 feet, and is either the most or second-most climbed mountain in the world, depending upon whose press you are reading (its competitor is Japan's Mount Fuji).

We reached the state park that surrounds the mountain and started down the trail at around 9:30 am. Although rain was predicted later that day—it would turn out to be the day when the tornadoes landed here in central Massachusetts—the morning was beautiful, with clear skies and warm temperatures.

The presence on the trails of children and teenagers and people dressed in regular workout clothes can make you forget that, even at its modest height and moderately difficult climbing terrain, Monadnock is a mountain. If you take only occasional short stops, and move along at a good clip, you can reach the top in around two hours—but those are two very hard hours. Most of the time you are either walking up steep trail or climbing, hand-over-foot, up rocky formations. I exercise four or five days a week, and consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but I still spent a lot of the climb with my heart pumping hard and my leg muscles burning.

We made it to the top around 11:30, right on schedule, and had a half-hour up there to savor the views while we ate the lunches we had brought. I had my picture snapped on the summit, and took a few of the kids up there as well.

The way down, which took around an hour, proved no less difficult than the way up. Trying to move carefully down the steep trail on jellied legs, especially when the rocks are damp, necessitated plenty of short rests, and led to a few near-slips for me and the kids.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the small store run by the state park rangers, I surveyed the selection of books about Monadnock. Since I have been reading and writing so much about religion and spirituality these days, naturally my eye was drawn to a short little book called The Heart of Monadnock, which had a picture on the cover of an angel superimposed over the mountain. I read on the back that it was by an early feminist, children's author, and mountain climber, Elizabeth Weston Timlow, and that it described the “spiritual transformation she experienced while hiking the trails” of the mountain.

That's for me, I thought. I took it home and sat on my front porch later that afternoon, reading about the mountain I had just climbed.

I wish I could recommend that everyone run out and read this strange little book, but I probably shouldn't. The story takes the form of a meandering description of the travels of an unnamed protagonist—referred to as the Mountain Lover—as he spends day after day climbing and traversing the many paths that crisscross the mountain. The vast majority of the book consists of poetic descriptions of the flora and fauna he encounters, of the views he witnesses, and of the physical and emotional sensations he experiences. They are certainly well-written descriptions . . . but there are just too many of them. I had to push myself to get through the entire thing, which is less than two hundred small pages long.

At the heart of the book, though, comes a scene which imparts its main message—and that message seemed to me one worth sharing.

The Mountain Lover comes to a point at which he has lost the trail, and can't figure out where to go next. He hears a voice, which seems to come from the mountain, that reminds him of a Latin quotation he had learned long ago: “Perge, qua via ducat.” Rough translation: “Go on, as the way will lead.” Still unsure of where to place his feet next, the Mountain Lover follows an instinct and starts moving. Within a few steps he recognizes a familiar landmark and finds his way back to the trail he had lost.

Weston opens the next chapter, after this scene, by philosophizing about his experience: “he had taken confidently that next step in life although he had seen nothing beyond. But when he had taken it, the next lay open to his view, and then the next. Perhaps for some distance only one visible at a time, although he so longed to see the whole way. It needed faith. It was not always easy to go on, just feeling the way with his feet . . . But the necessary thing was to go on—go on.”

“Have the main goal clearly in one's vision,” she concludes. “The great definite end. Then keep an unprejudiced attitude towards the route itself. Sometimes it is just a question of what Carlyle wrote: 'Do the duty that lies nearest thee; the next will already have become clearer.'”


It was easy enough to see how and why this message might come from a lover of mountain climbing. The four hours we spent on the mountain that day consisted of three and a half hours of hard slogging, and thirty minutes of spectacular views at the summit. To speak or think of mountain climbing evokes images of basking in the views of the summit; to actually climb a mountain mostly means walking up steep paths, scrabbling over rocks, sweating, grunting, watching your footing, and taking it one step at a time. Every once in a while you get a glimpse of the scenery through the trees—but only every once in a while.

And although she did not put in exactly these terms, I'm sure Weston meant to convey—and if she didn't, I mean to—that maintaining a spiritual life can feel like much the same kind of experience.

Although we might associate ideas about faith and spirituality with experiences of clarity and insight, with joy and peace, with communing with God and feeling the love of all creatures great and small, the daily experience of it can feel a lot more like slogging up the mountain. You will get your moments of spiritual transformation and inner peace, of feeling a sense of oneness with the universe, etc.--but don't expect them if you are not committed to climbing the mountain first. The daily and weekly acts of attending church services, praying, volunteering, donating to charity, forgiving those who annoy you, and coming down on the right side of the small ethical dilemmas we face every day—those acts are the real work of living with faith and spirituality.

Sometimes that work can be enjoyable and satisfying, in the way that exercise can be enjoyable and satisfying. But sometimes you just feel like sitting on the couch and forgetting about it.

The next time I feel that impulse, and am tempted to give up, I'll try to remember Weston's Mountain Lover.

One more step forward.

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