On my arrival at Way of Holiness last September, my first thought was how glad I was to be in the mountains.
On my arrival at Way of Holiness last September, my first thought was how glad I was to be in the mountains. That very weekend, I accomplished my first solo hike - Opal Peak. The trailhead begins at Maligne Lake, south of Jasper, and rises up rapidly. Opal is known as one of the steepest amateur hikes in the park, with the treeline just over the halfway point.
As I started my climb, I expected my mind to be filled all the way to the top with sublime thoughts. Maybe I would be overwhelmed with the majesty of the mountains. Maybe I would consider how God, who made these peaks, far surpasses their beauty and power. Maybe I would reflect on the importance of silence and solitude.
It turns out, all I could think about was how out of breath I was.
I was panting within a few minutes of starting the hike. My thoughts were reduced to “one foot in front of the other,” “5 more minutes before a break,” and “c’mon Ryan, just do it!” This continued for a while, and for a few water breaks. Eventually though, a sublime thought did break in - the importance of a particular virtue: Fortitude.
Fortitude, or courage, is the virtue of pursuing the great but difficult goods in our life. Anything worth having is worth fighting for. When things are difficult, our emotions kick into high gear. We might feel sudden bouts of hope ‘it is possible!’ and switch just as quickly to despair and discouragement, and then back again. We fear we won’t get that job, we get turned down by the girl, prayer is unbearably dry, and it becomes too terrifying to even get out of the bed in the morning. Fortitude keeps us from giving up, for settling for lesser goods, simply because the better ones are hard. Fortitude enables us to keep stepping forward, to continue saying ‘one foot in front of the other,’ in the great, difficult, terrifying, wonderful journey that is this life.
In the spiritual life, the height to which we are climbing is nothing less than the encounter with the Most High God, who made the mountains and the stars. Our goal is to contemplate Him with all our mind, to love Him with all our hearts, until the mountains and the stars turn to dust, and ever on. This is not a goal for wimps. Following Christ will take everything we have, every ounce of strength we can give, as the terrifying demands of the Gospel make clear. Indeed, “for men, this is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:26) To carry the crosses of the Christian life, fortitude is necessary, and a fortitude that can only be given by grace.
View of the far (east) side from Opal Peak:
I continued to climb up and up, completely alone among the trees, except for the occasional deer. A second thought came to mind. I was reminded of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young man in Italy in the early 1900s. Though he died young (age 24), he had already developed a reputation for sanctity, living a life of love filled with prayer, penances, love for the poor, and most of all, good friends. He would often invite his friends to go hiking with him in the Italian alps. While hiking, and in daily life, he would encourage his friends with the phrase ‘verso l’alto’ or ‘to the heights!’ Not to the plains, not to the mediocre goods of this world, but to the peaks of the mountains and of virtue. On my climb, the phrase kept coming back to mind - ‘to the heights, to the heights!’ Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!
A couple hours up Opal, one reaches a false peak around the tree line, only to descend into a small meadow, filled with tall grass, wildflowers, a small lake and a river; the real peak rises up behind it. Stunning does not begin to capture it. I continued up and up towards the real peak; it is covered in scree, and I found I would take two steps forward only to slide one step back. Once again, fortitude was needed. Patches of snow started to show up around me. An hour later, and I finally arrived at the peak, wind in my hair, sun shining; Maligne Lake, where I began my trek, was far in the distance beyond the false peak, and (as I read afterwards) more than a kilometer below me. In every direction I saw mountain peaks upon mountain peaks, and maybe a half dozen lakes in the valleys opened up before me. I was, truly, on top of the world. I don’t know if I have ever seen such a view on any other hike, nor have I ever felt so alive. Praised be God the Father, who built the mountains. Praised be Jesus Christ, the Wisdom by which He built them. Praise the Spirit, who gives us the fortitude to climb them. “To the heights!”
View of Opal Peak from a distance:
Categories: Personal Journeys