We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world. During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey. These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter. For these reasons, we pray, and pay attention—step by step.
These prayers, though, are also very provincial. They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family. We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).
High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep. Yes. This was round one.
We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assualt, in a different direction. We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in St. Louis. Bombing in Iraq? Ukraine? Syria? Fires still burning. Refugees. And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. My God. Is this the same world?
Yes. The same world indeed. What are we to make of the disparity between candlelit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?
My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price. There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment. The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a cost—vulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial. That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.
But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college. I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings; for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child; for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all, but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.
All I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering. Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened. Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasy—whether that takes the form of porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.
Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear. He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our creator. “There’s a time for everything” as the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.
For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days. We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold. We pray, we’ll be safe. We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people. But, The Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us to cry out once again: “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.
“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. ” Rilke