Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Mountain


Climbing is like lifting a weight, hand over hand, using a pulley. Marathoner in a trance, you ascend rapidly as time slows to near motionlessness.

Trees rustle, rice husks pushing back and forth to dry. Desiccated brush, smallish bundles, tumble downward, roll about. Bamboo thickets, agitated brooms, shiver.

Dislodged by your feet, tiny stones hurtle, soaring arcs increasing in velocity downhill, click-clacking glass marbles knocking together, gradually fading, scattering into silence.

At this height air is rarefied fire. Atop the mountain birds hover overhead, transfixed by the sun more brilliant than a sorcerer’s spell, flanked by clouds, bright balls of electricity.

Strong gusts sand your face roughly, a stone. The wind is cold, the eye of an ascetic just returned from a visit to the dead, fiercely gazing, an eagle clutching a small animal.

The vast plain below mirrors the sky, wet paddies flashing crystal polygons, jewelry turning side to side. Far into the distance, short hills squat, huge emerald droplets, whilst the river, a glittering bracelet, empties into an ocean of light.

Breathless, you are a broken wheel on the wayside. You will climb the mountain again, spellbound by the expenditure of controlled energy, delighted by the sting of sharp gravel underfoot.

Originally published in Eastlit (September 1, 2014)

Mount Makiling, Laguna, Philippines


  1. Historical world literature commonly invokes the mountain as a symbol of the spiritual journey. In the Bible, for example, the mountain is a universal symbol of the direct encounter of humanity—often represented by the individual human person—with the Almighty. Memorably, Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross depicts the arduous upward journey up the mountain as an allegory of spiritual progress toward union with the Beloved.

    Benedict XVI says (Vatican City, March 26, 2010):

    “If Jesus goes up to Jerusalem together with Israel on pilgrimage, he goes there to celebrate the Passover with Israel: the memorial of Israel’s liberation—a memorial that is always at the same time hope for the definitive liberation that God will give. And Jesus goes to this feast with the awareness that he himself is the Lamb spoken of in the Book of Exodus: a male lamb without blemish, which at twilight will be slaughtered before all of Israel ‘as a perpetual institution’ (cf. Exodus 12:5-6, 14). And in the end Jesus knows that his way goes beyond this: It will not end in the cross. He knows that his way will tear away the veil between this world and God’s world; that he will ascend to the throne of God and reconcile God and man in his body. He knows that his risen body will be the new sacrifice and the new Temple; that around him in the ranks of the angels and saints there will be formed the new Jerusalem that is in heaven and nevertheless also on earth. His way leads beyond the summit of the Temple mount to the height of God himself: This is the great ascent to which he calls all of us. He always remains with us on earth and has always already arrived [in heaven] with God; he leads us on earth and beyond the earth.

    “Thus in the breadth of Jesus’ ascent the dimensions of our following of him become visible—the goal to which he wants to lead us: to the heights of God, to communion with God, to being-with-God. This is the true goal, and communion with him is the way. Communion with Christ is being on a journey, a permanent ascent to the true height of our calling. Journeying together with Jesus is always at the same time a traveling together in the ‘we’ of those who want to follow him. It brings us into this community. Because this journey to true life, to being men conformed to the model of the Son of God Jesus Christ is beyond our powers, this journeying is also always a state of being carried. We find ourselves, so to speak, in a ‘roped party’ with Jesus Christ—together with him in the ascent to the heights of God. He pulls us and supports us. Letting oneself be part of a roped party is part of following Christ; we accept that we cannot do it on our own. The humble act of entering into the ‘we’ of the Church is part of it—holding on to the roped party, the responsibility of communion, not letting go of the rope because of our bullheadedness and conceit.

    “Humbly believing with the Church, like being bound together in a roped party ascending to God, is an essential condition for following Christ. Not acting as the owners of the Word of God, not chasing after a mistaken idea of emancipation—this is also part of being together in the roped party. The humility of ‘being-with’ is essential to the ascent. Letting the Lord take us by the hand through the sacraments is another part of it. We let ourselves be purified and strengthened by him, we let ourselves accept the discipline of the ascent, even if we are tired.”

    To be continued

  2. Continued from previous

    “Finally, we must again say that the cross is part of the ascent toward the height of Jesus Christ, the ascent to the height of God. Just as in the affairs of this world great things cannot be done without renunciation and hard work (joy in great discoveries and joy in a true capacity for activity are linked to discipline, indeed, to the effort of learning) so also the way to life itself, to the realization of one’s own humanity is linked to him who climbed to the height of God through the cross. In the final analysis, the cross is the expression of that which is meant by love: Only he who loses himself will find himself.”

    Papa Francesco recapitulates (Vatican City, April 17, 2013): “[Jesus is] the head of a roped party when climbing a mountain, who arrives at the summit and attracts us to himself, leading us to God. If we entrust our life to Him, if we let ourselves be guided by Him, we are certain of being in safe hands, in the hands of our Savior, in the hands of our advocate.”

    Secular sources also well recognize the spiritual symbolism of the mountain. Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) writes:

    “The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.”

    No doubt mountain guides are helpful, especially if you want to avoid plummeting to your death. Uncharted routes are traveled by pioneers, who carry the most risk. Although pioneers are necessary to discover unknown paths and thereby achieve virgin goals, they do not always survive.

    Modern and postmodern times do not always understand the literary motif of the mountain as a spiritual symbol, at least manifestly so. Translated by Robert Bly, Up on Top (2008) by the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge, for example, imagines mountains as “foolishness and arrogance.” At the summit awaits jaded disillusion: “The pot lies upside down in the hearth, / it sprawls with hostile black feet.”

    Wisely, Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance expounds:

    “Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster…When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.”


    To the tune of “Pure and Serene Music”
    October 1935

    The sky is high, the clouds are pale,
    We watch the wild geese vanish southward.
    If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men,
    We who have already measured twenty thousand li
    High on the crest of Mount Liupan.
    Red banners wave freely in the west wind.
    Today we hold the long cord in our hands.
    When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?

    Mao Zhedong (1893-1976)

    Translated by

    This commentary explains the figures of speech in the poem:



    As the ancient stories tell us, invisible
    to mortal men, beauty dwells among
    the high-capped rocks near a wind gap
    arduous to climb. And you must almost
    wear your heart out in the struggle
    required to attain its height.

    Simonides (6th century B.C.)

    In Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, translated by Sherod Santos (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005), p. 71.


  5. PSALM 24:3-6

    Or who may stand in his holy place?
    He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
    Who desires not what is vain,
    Nor swears deceitfully to his neighbor.
    He shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
    A reward from God his savior.
    Such is the race that seeks for him,
    That seeks the face of the God of Jacob.


  6. The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain (1954) by Wallace Stevens:


  7. The mountain is a ubiquitous literary motif, whatever the religious or ideological persuasion of the author.


  8. Mountaintop experiences: