The second in our series of articles commemorating the 500th anniversay of the death of St John of the Cross. This week, Sr Miriam ODC discusses the potent symbol of the mountain in his poetry.
THE symbol of the mountain with "its great height and the difficulty which is experienced, in climbing it", dominates the whole of St John of the Cross' first treatise, The Ascent of Mowit Carmel. It symbolises the necessary ascesis of detachment and mortification demanded of would-be climbers, both of the Mount of Perfection and of geological mountains.
Strangely enough, and disappointingly, there is no mention of mountains, either in the poem, En una cache oscura which precedes it, nor in the commentary that follows. The symbol is, however, graphically portrayed by a sketch map of Mount Carmel, to which are attached maxims and pedagogical verses, later used by T S Eliot in East Coker.
The map shows one straight route up the Mount, flanked by two trails which meander away into the foothills. These are the paths taken by those who are attached to spiritual and material possessions.
The central way, "nothing, nothing, nothing", alone leads to the summit ridge, a kind of "col", but where there is still "nothing" "and on the mountain nothing".
Then beyond this crucial point, there are easier snow slopes approaching the summit where "only the honour and glory of God dwells". There is no longer a way, only truth and life; the place where God himself has prepared, and is, a rich banquet of delights.
Like all valid universal symbols, the mountain contains contradictions. It can be forbidding, terrifying, harsh, cruel, unpredictable one moment dazzlingly beautiful, the next furious with storm, wind avalanche ef Sinai, ablaze with fire, into whose dark clouds Moses alone could penetrate and return, his face shining from the vision of God.
On the other hand the psalmist sings and rejoices at the natural and symbolic beauty of the hills. Jesus himself has a prediction for the mountains and hills, where he ;goes to pray alone, and wherein the presence of his three special friends is transfigured between MOWS and Elijah.
Mary hastens joyfully into the hill country to greet Elizabeth and to rejoice in God her saviour. Mountains are traditionally the place of encounter with God and, in every mood, exert the strongest attraction upon men and women.
St John of the Cross speaks most frequently of mountains in the poem Spiritual Canticle. In some of its most beautiful stanzas he tells of the bridge seeking her beloved "over mountains and banks". "Let us rejoice, Beloved And let us go to see ourselves in thy beauty. To the mountain or the hill where flows the pure water".
In his little book, Lovelier than the Dawn, Noel O'DonogIne OCD wonders if John knew about the highest mountains and the great hazards involved in climbing them. He concludes that if he did not, St John would have said that the dangers and hardships are as nothing compared with those of the spiritual ascent to the peaks of the Mount of Perfection.
If this is really so, how can we, who are not high altitude climbers possibly reach God's holy mountain? Does not Fr Noel's statement confirm that the doctrine of St John is beyond the reach of ordinary mortals? I think these difficulties can be resolved by bearing in mind that Fr Noel and St John are speaking symbolically, and symbols transcend our usual experience.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel is only one face of the Mount. Jesus is the first to make absolute demands: to deny ourselves and take up our truss daily; to enter by the narrow way. He also says that without him we cannot take a single step. It is God himself who attracts us, draws us upwards to himself on the strong rope of love against the compulsive downward pull of human nature. "No one can come to me, unless the Father draws him" (John 6.44).
If we begin to realise that, like climbers, we are always caught between grace and nature, "spirit" and "flesh", we shall understand that the symbol of mountain perfectly expresses the gospel teaching of self-denial on the one hand,and "God-with-us", constantly training and guiding us on the other the active and passive purification necessary for every Christian.
Hilaire Belloc, like most of us, loved the mountains, not so much to climb as to contemplate. He once said: "the great peaks make communion between that homing creeping part of me which loves vineyards and dances and slow movement among pastures, and that other part which is only properly at home in heaven", On this, Arnold Lunn, the traveller and climber, commented: "Had Mr Belloc been a climber, he would have discovered that the dominant theme of mountaineering is not the communion between but the contrast and perpetual quarrel between the homing and creeping part and the part that is at home in heaven".
We know this perpetual battle only too well. Mountains and mountaineers teach us its reality. If asked "Why climb? Why take such dangerous risks?" most would reply: "we have to". This is true of all climbers and wouldbe climbers, whether of rock, ice and snow, or of the everyday "mountains of the mind".
In the mountains we find out what it really means to be human, vulnerable, mortal; we meet our real selves and God. When the clouds lift, we face the shining summits, life becomes very simply, uncluttered. We live in the truth before God.