Lately, this part of the liturgical year has great significance for me; I have come to realize that the great battle for holiness is so often won or lost in the most ordinary of moments and in the most mundane activities of working and caring for family. It is in those most ordinary times in our lives that we have the greatest opportunity to grow in love for others. If we can inject holiness into our daily routines and ordinary acts, then it can take root in us much more deeply than if we only do so during the exciting high points that occur less frequently in our lives.
These daily routines often remind me of climbing a mountain because of the repetition and discipline required to be successful in either one. I have learned that if we want to reach the heights of heaven from the lowly earth, it will require us to take up our cross daily and follow Him over some very rocky terrain. I really enjoyed using my experience of the Appalachian and Rocky mountains to elucidate these concepts, and hopefully they will help others to begin the ordinary work of becoming extraordinary in our love just as God desires us to be.
Day 1 - As we behold the mountain while we approach it, we are drawn to it by its beauty, the sense of awe building within us as we gaze upon its majestic heights, and we are drawn to it yet more by the somehow entrancing broken lines scarring the mountain's face. It is the pure and simple beauty of the mountain which motivates us to meet the challenge of facing our own death as we struggle mightily to ascend to the peak.
In the same way, when we behold the spiritual mountain of God, we are drawn to it first by its great beauty. We feel a profound sense of awe as we contemplate the Father's love which dwells fully at the peak. We are drawn to it yet more by the face of the scarred Icon, the Son whose Kingdom is not of this world, the Son who faced death so that we too could face it with His kingly majesty. It is this pure and simple spiritual beauty of the outpouring love of God which motivates us to enter the spiritual struggle and ascend to meet Him at the peak.
Day 2 - On the mountain, as we leave the lush valley to begin our journey toward the rocky summit, it becomes apparent that not all paths are the same, that many paths will lead us to our death in a ravine while others might be so convoluted and lengthy that they will cause us to die from hunger and thirst before we reach the pure spring at the summit.
So too on the spiritual mountain, it becomes apparent as we begin to climb that not all paths are the same, that many paths will lead us to a death of the spirit long before we reach the spring of Living Water flowing from the heights.
Day 4 - On the mountain, as we survey the paths we might take to reach the summit, we can choose to strike out in whichever direction we feel looks rugged and untrammeled, beautiful to behold, or we can search out a well-worn path taken by those who have made the journey before us, trusting that those who have been to the summit have already found a reliable way to reach the pure spring at the peak.
So too on the spiritual mountain, as we look at the many spiritual paths we might take to reach the heights of purest love, we can choose to strike out on our own in whatever direction our whims lead us, or we can make the climb on the well-worn spiritual paths taken by those who have climbed the spiritual mountain before us, trusting that they have found a reliable way to reach the source of the Living Water pouring down from the peak.
Day 5 - On the mountain, the climbing is easier at the base, and we beginners might be tempted to believe that we are doing particularly well when the first day's climb goes smoothly. As time goes on and the climb becomes steeper, we learn that we are still too weak to make good progress in a day, even with the help of climbing equipment. This humility is a hard lesson, but a helpful one.
In the same way, when we are beginners in the ascent of the spiritual mountain, we might believe at first that we are doing very well in our spiritual ascent to the heights of Love. As time goes on, it becomes clear to us that we are far weaker than we believed, that we can barely make good progress even with the help of the most potent devotions. Ah, how the hard lesson of humility spurs us on to greater efforts and assists us in our ascent to the Lord!
Day 6 - On the mountain, the humble climber seeking the summit for the first time knows to seek out a guide, someone who has been on the mountain before and knows the paths around the ravines and sheer rock faces which cannot be traversed, someone who has been to the summit before and is willing to help others reach it alive as well.
So too on the spiritual mountain, the humble seeker of the heavenly heights knows to seek out a guide who has been on the spiritual mountain before, someone who has found the difficult paths around the pitfalls and obstacles on the spiritual mountain, someone who has been to the heavenly heights and invites others to reach them as well, helping them to ascend where they might otherwise have fallen to their death.
Day 7 - On the mountain, even those who have an experienced guide will not have an easy ascent. The guide simply directs us to where the climb is possible; there is no perfectly smooth path to the summit, and every person will encounter parts of the path which take all of our strength and skill and will to traverse alive. There is always a risk of stumbling into a ravine from which we cannot ascend because we grow weary and want what looks like the easier path.
So too on the spiritual mountain, even those of us who find someone who has been on the spiritual mountain before, someone from whom we can learn which spiritual paths are possible routes to the summit of divine love, will encounter parts of our path which take all of our strength and skill and will to traverse without dying the spiritual death of separating ourselves from the Living Water because we are weary and want to travel what looks like the easier spiritual path.
Day 8 - On the mountain, we do not have the luxury of always encountering comfortable handholds and footholds as we climb the steep slopes down which flows pure spring water from the summit. We must use whatever handholds and footholds are available, strengthening ourselves in our climb by exercising our muscles and learning the better ways to use the mountain's terrain to lift ourselves up. It is often the most difficult part of the climb which benefits us the most as we draw closer to the peak.
So too on the spiritual mountain, we do not have the luxury of always encountering that which is comfortable in our ascent of the mountain; we will encounter many difficult moments as we strive to find the summit of divine love. Those difficult moments are often the handholds and footholds on the spiritual mountain, and when we choose to lovingly serve others in those moments, then we strengthen ourselves in our climb by exercising our hearts with love and learning how to love more deeply. It is so often the difficult moments in the spiritual life which benefit us the most and we draw closer to the peak from which flows the Living Water.
Day 11 - On the mountain, the process of finding the usual pleasures of life becomes more difficult as we climb higher; the plants and animals we find delicious for food are not so abundant on the heights as they are in the garden. The rich amenities of the city with its comfortable vehicles are replaced by aching feet placed on hard ground; its bottled liquors so easily swigged are replaced by spring water gathered carefully into a canteen and rationed so that it might sustain us for longer in order to finish our climb and reach the summit.
So too on the spiritual mountain, as we climb higher toward the summit of divine love, it becomes more difficult to find the old pleasures upon which we relied previously. The pleasure of raucous noise is replaced by worshipful silence on the spiritual mountain; the pleasure of the physical closeness of other people is replaced by the serenity of spiritual intimacy with the divine; the pleasure of impressing other people with our appearance is replaced by a profound awe in the presence of that which transcends mere appearances, that rocky ground of existence upon which can stand firm. When we have replaced our old pleasures with what we truly need, then we will be sustained as we strive to drink of the Living Water rushing down from the heights.
Day 12 - On the mountain, it is easy to fall down the mountainside in such a way that we are seriously injured, even if we have not yet climbed very far. How much easier it is to fall and be gravely injured once we have climbed closer to the summit!
In the same way, it is easy to hurt ourselves by falling off of the spiritual mountainside through our sins. When we miss the mark and fall off of the narrow path to the summit of the spiritual mountain, it is deeply painful. And the higher we have climbed, the narrower and more difficult the path to perfection becomes, it is all the easier to slip and fall. Ah, how deeply we feel the anguish upon a fall from the heights of the spiritual mountain! The closer we have come to union with God, the more severe the pain in our hearts when we fall farther away from our beloved Father who dwells at the summit.
Day 13 - On the mountain, the very air becomes thinner, often painfully so, as we draw closer to the peak. The weight of each breath seems to grow as we gradually ascend, perhaps beginning to feel over time as if the weight of the mountain has come to rest on our chest rather than under our feet, our lungs burning with the desire for more oxygen. But over time, we grow accustomed to moving in the thin air, and our lungs and arteries grow stronger for it as we acclimatize to living on the heights.
So too on the spiritual mountain, every breath of transient pleasure we take becomes more difficult as we draw closer to the peak from which flows the Living Water. The weight of the pleasures to which we cling the most strongly, those basic pleasures we never thought we would have to abandon, becomes unbearable for us as we ascend. Oh how we long for our pleasures even while we recognize that we cannot carry them with us to the summit, and how it burns us to leave them behind! But over time, we grow accustomed to living with little pleasure, and we grow stronger for it as we acclimatize to a life of service to all on the heights of love.
Day 15 - On the mountain, a blizzard can strike unexpectedly, blinding us and forcing us to take shelter until the storm has passed. We can either find a cave in the rock or dig a cave in the snow to protect ourselves from the shearing force of the wind and the bitterness of the cold which leeches heat and life from our bodies. We learn on the mountain that to stay warm we need fire and water, that the snow is dangerous to us until it has been purified by the fire so that we can drink of it.
In the same way, on the spiritual mountain a blizzard of temptations can strike unexpectedly, the many pleasures that can be had in life flying toward us on the deadly chilling winds, forcing us to take shelter from them in the cave of solitude and prayer, creating a space between us and our temptations so that we have room to grow in divine love. We learn on the spiritual mountain that to stay warm we need the fire of our love for God and that we must purify the pleasures of life in that holy fire so that they do not leech the heat and life from our spirits, so that we might retain the strength to reach the summit and drink of the Living Water.
Day 16 - On the mountain, there are many times when it is necessary to camp and rest after a day's hiking or climbing up the mountain's face. To be still and silent on the mountain, to fall asleep in its shadow and under the glorious stars of the night sky, is a joy after a long day's work as we ascend the mountain.
In the same way, we must stop and rest regularly as we make the grueling climb to the summit of the spiritual mountain where the Lord dwells. To be still and silent before His presence, to fall asleep with the glorious light of His saints shining down upon us from heaven, is a source of great joy after each day's labor and the daily prayers which ascend to Him from our hearts.
Day 19 - On the mountain, our choice of path can be a matter of life and death. An avalanche can begin with a single step onto the top of a snowpack, freshly covered after a blinding blizzard and exposed to the light of the sun the next day, beautiful in appearance. Death can come quickly for us when we place our trust in what turns out to be unable to support us, not solid enough to help us on our journey to the summit. We learn on the mountain that entrancing beauty and the appearance of peace on the snowy slopes are not enough to lift ourselves up upon, but that in amounts too large they can pull us down and bury us, entombing us under the weight of their ephemeral crystalline beauty.
So too on the spiritual mountain, our choice of path can be a matter of spiritual life or death. When we walk through life relying on our daily transient pleasures to support us, spiritual death can come quickly for us. It can come when we take a single step, to begin a single habit of relying on a pleasure to get through life, which then causes the avalanche of pleasure-seeking to pull us down and bury us under the weight of the ephemeral beauty of our pleasures, forever keeping us from reaching the summit of divine love. We learn on the spiritual mountain that the appearance of peace found in small pleasures is unable to support us as we search the heights of love for the eternal spring of Living Water.
Day 21 - On the mountain, the best path is the solid path, the path we know will support our weight. The solid path, however, is not generally the easy path. The solid path is the path which is unyielding precisely because it is solid and can bear the full weight of our bodies; the solid path will not soften for us, will not bend as we press upon it. In order to traverse the solid path which leads reliably to the summit, we must conform our movements to the solid path, following it carefully and methodically, because the solid path will by no means conform itself to our wishes.
So too on the spiritual mountain, the solid spiritual path is the best path, but it is never the easy path. The solid spiritual path will support us unfailingly on our spiritual ascent precisely because it is unyielding, because it will not conform itself to our wishes. Instead, we must conform all actions of our spiritual life to the shape of the path, following it carefully and methodically to the summit from which springs forth the Living Water we seek with joyful hearts. It is the unyielding spiritual path which will shape our lives so that we can reach the heights of divine love!
Day 23 - On the mountain, amidst the chill of the air, the rocky crags, and the frigid vegetation, we are glad to have companions sharing our trek to the top of the mountain. We are especially grateful for those companions we do have because not many will want to join us on the solid, rocky, difficult to traverse path which is necessary to take in order to reach the summit.
So too on the spiritual mountain, amidst the cold temptations that surround us, the rocky crags of obedience which we climb, and the frigid vegetation of pride which dots the landscape of our hearts, we are indeed glad for the faithful companions who share our journey. The companions who join us are rare indeed, committed as they are to the hard path of poverty, chastity, and obedience by which we reach the summit after a great struggle, delighted to see the spring of Living Water as we ascend the peak.
Day 24 - On the mountain, it is necessary to keep the fire alive so that we can stay alive, so that we can keep our bodies warm and avoid the slow death that comes from prolonged exposure to the intensely cold air into which the heat from our bodies moves as we breathe it out of our lungs, the fire in our hearts being extinguished slowly with each beat. If only our hearts could carry the fire safely, our journey to the summit would be much more enjoyable.
So too on the spiritual mountain, it is necessary to keep the spiritual fire alive so that the spirit will not die, so that we can avoid the slow death of the soul that comes from prolonged reliance on the cold pleasures of the flesh, pleasures as precious to us as the breaths we take. If we but remove the cold pleasures which smother the spiritual fire of the heart with the blanket of the ego, then the fire will never be extinguished, and our hearts will be filled with the light of joy as we climb the steep slopes of love on our journey to the summit.
Day 26 - On the mountain, we keep the fire alive by carrying with us the long-burning fuel to feed the fire through the night, quick-burning fuel to ensure that the fire burns hot from the beginning, and something to create the spark from which the fire begins anew each day. Though the spark is absolutely necessary, it is the fuel which decides how hot and high the fire will blaze as it burns through the darkest night in frigid mountain air. The wise climber seeks the best fuel that can be found to ensure that the dark nights and cutting winds of cold air can be endured.
So too on the spiritual mountain, we keep the spiritual fire alive by means of long-burning fuel, quick-burning fuel, and a spark to light the spiritual fire each day. The morning prayers of love for God and others are a necessary spark, and yet it is the daily joyful affection we show for our loved ones that sets the spiritual fire burning quickly and the loving acts of service for the stranger and the orphan that keep the spiritual fire blazing boldly through the dark night of the soul and the cold air of our temptations to partake of selfish fleshly pleasures. The wise climber on the spiritual mountain seeks the prayers of the most radical love for God, the most expansive joyful affection for all in the divine household, and the most costly acts of compassion for those most in need of His mercy to fuel the spirit on the journey to the summit.
Day 27 - On the mountain, we stop and stand in awe of the waterfall rushing down the steep slopes, watching as the mist and fog collects below in the peaceful stillness being constantly broken by the thunderous sounds of the crushing wall of water as it strikes the rocks and wears them down over the ages into the smooth stones which can safely be held in the most tender palm of the smallest child.
In the same way, on the spiritual mountain we stand in awe of the waterfall of Living Water, the gift of Love rushing down the slopes to the pool available to all who venture near to the spiritual mountain, the thunderous sound of Love breaking the stillness as it strikes the hard rock of our hearts below over the course of our lives, wearing them down into hearts of purest love, hearts which can safely hold in them the tender child-like love which will bring us ever nearer the spring of Living Water at the peak.
Day 29 - On the mountain, we are tempted to stand directly under the waterfall, to explore what lies behind the wall of water slamming down upon the rocks, but the wise traveler knows that this will require preparation to undertake. To enter into the grand waterfall which cascades forth from age unto age, we need to first strengthen ourselves by standing under the smaller waterfalls which will shape our habits so that we can withstand the power of the stream, shed ourselves of all the unnecessary and heavy burdens we carry so that we can enter the stream without being swept away, and take precious supplies with us so that we can continue to have strength for the journey once we reach the other side.
This gift of Love is a crushing wall under which we cannot stand upright until we have been shaped by the smaller waterfalls of suffering which wear away all of those parts of us which are not made of the gentleness of love, until we have been cleansed first in the waterfall of divine grace which is poured out upon us in Baptism, and until we are immersed in the waterfall of the passion of divine love seen with the eyes of faith in the Eucharist, that bread for the journey which strengthens us on the way to the summit.
Day 32 - On the mountain, we can see far more than we could see before we reached the peak. We can look back and see the desert in the distance, remembering the long journey across the barren desert that taught us that reaching our destination requires sacrifice which gradually separates us from our compulsive reliance on comfort. We can look back and see the garden in the valley that lies below the foothills, remembering our simple and serene life in the garden that taught us to take the time to cultivate the best food for those we love, dedicating our lives to tending the land we have been given and growing in the soil watered by the river.
So too on the spiritual mountain, we can see far more of the spiritual life than we could see before we reached the peak. We can look back and remember our journey through the spiritual desert which began the process of separating ourselves from our fleshly pleasures so that we could have room in our hearts for divine joy. We can look back and remember our time in the spiritual garden during which we began the process of cultivating love in our hearts so that they would bear the fruit of divine love watered by the river which springs from the summit of the spiritual mountain.
Day 34 - On the mountain, the moon seems to loom larger in our vision at night when the sky is clear. Her light shines upon us so brightly, a necessary reflection of the light of the sun upon us even when the sun is not visible to us because the earth has turned the other way, always drawing our gaze to the sunlight even in the cold dark night.
So too on the spiritual mountain, Mary the Mother of God seems to loom larger in our vision during the dark night of the soul, reflecting the light of the Son upon us even when we cannot see Him because we have turned to look the other way. Oh, how delightful it is that her light consoles us through the cold dark spiritual night and allows us to see His light!
Day 36 - On the mountain, the sun is even brighter than in the desert, its rays reflected more powerfully by the snow and ice, saturating our vision with light. In the cold mountain air, we treasure the warmth provided by the sun even more, knowing that its rays are sustaining us quietly while we climb higher toward the peak where its rays can reach us from every direction.
So too on the spiritual mountain, the Son is even brighter than in the spiritual desert, His light saturating our vision and filling our mind with the things of heaven. We treasure the warmth in our hearts provided by the Son more than ever, knowing that it is His light showering upon us always from every direction, a divine light which sustains us while we climb to the peak on the heavenly heights to meet our Love.
Day 37 - At the peak of the mountain, there is nothing to hide us from the view of anyone who might be looking; we are exposed to the wind and sun and to the vision of all, whether they love us or wish to do us harm, and yet we are not afraid. The joy of reaching the summit overtakes all our doubts and fears, and we delight in drinking from the mountain spring from which came the waterfalls on the mountainside and the river in the garden.
In the same way, at the peak of the spiritual mountain we do not attempt to hide from anyone who might seek us because we know that we are ever visible in the light of the Son; we are at peace while we welcome both friend and enemy into the embrace of Love. The joy of reaching the spiritual summit fills our hearts so that there is no room for doubt or fear, and we drink reverently of the Living Water which springs forth from the mountaintop to fill the world with the chance for life eternal in the garden of Paradise with God's Love.
Day 39 - At the peak of the mountain, we can see more clearly how very small we are and how expansive all that exists is. We are humbled by our insignificance and also emboldened by the magnificence of the extravagantly beautiful creation of which we partake; our hearts are emptied of ingratitude and filled with gratitude for the whole cosmos which is laid out before us, a gift we cannot give to anyone but those who journey with us to the summit from which the river springs.
In the same way, at the peak of the spiritual mountain we see clearly how very small we are and how expansive all the God has given us is. We are emptied of our self-centered pride which separates us from divine love and filled with joy as we understand that all we have experienced has been part of a wondrous gift, the gift of Love which we only wish we could return in equal measure, a gift of all which we can only match by giving our all to Love, the gift which we invite others to share by taking the journey with us to the summit from which the Living Water springs.