Sometimes it seems to me this pilgrimage has been nothing more than a seeking after the tallest peaks and the most fantastic panoramas.
In looking back I see that so far I have conquered four of the tallest peaks surrounding Assisi. In Valdobbiadene we four squires nearly conquered the pre-alps, hiking through the frigid air along the crest of the mountains to the wooden cross that marks the second highest point. From that lowly point we looked desirously at the cross in the distance that marks the highest; and more desirously still towards Switzerland in the West, and the harsh, ghostly points of the Alps looming above the plain in between.
And then, in Siena a few weeks ago, built as it is on a large hill, approaching the full height of an Italian mountain, I promptly climbed to the topmost point; I was disappointed, however, when the medieval houses, thick, tall, and hedging in on the narrow cobblestone streets, afforded me no bird’s eye view of the town. And in Rome alone I have been to the top of I know not how many of the seven hills, wanting to see St. Peter’s, the epicenter of the earth, from every possible angle, and in as many varied sorts of natural lighting at as many times of day, or night, as possible.
This is natural, I think; this desire for heights. I am confirmed in this by others, and think I understand something of why it is so.
This semester, in reading The Path to Rome by Hillarie Belloc, I came across this marvelous passage, which is one that our moral theology professor repeats as many times as he possibly can:
‘These, the great Alps,” says Belloc, looking down on the world, with his feet firmly planted on one or another mountainous footstool, “seen thus, link one in some way to one’s immortality…Let me put it thus: that from the height of the Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentially of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the dual destiny. For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.”
I suppose that most everyone who has read Paschal’s Pensees, walks away with something different; the broad mind of the mathematician touches on most everything in one way or another. However, when I first read him, I recall being most struck at his awe at the strange and unique position of Man in the cosmos, and this has become a recurrent theme of my own thoughts, pulled forward whenever I feel the need to be astonished; that is, how man stands at the center of existence, with an infinity of largeness above him, and an infinity of smallness below him. In the physical world alone there is an infinite cosmos of stars and planets and space above him, and an infinite cosmos of insects and molecules and atoms and quarks and space beneath him; and there is man, bizarre creature that he is, standing starstruck in the middle, confronted when he turns his eyes in either direction, with infinity.
A man not starstruck is no man at all. “The world will never starve for want of wonders” says Chesterton, “but only for want of wonder.” And the awesome fact is that the great and inescapable paradox of our race is that we only catch glimpses of, or find our completion in the contemplation of the Infinite. Despite the fact that we are haunted by the distinct sense that we are unable as finite beings to obtain or contain it, we are just as sure that anything less than it is too little; we won’t, we are quite sure, be happy or complete without it.
That is, I believe, why so many men, especially now, are so unhappy. Not only does the modern man rarely, or never, plunge into or consider the vastness of his own interior and soul and desires, for fear of what he will find, but he is rarely even confronted with the most obvious of the vastnesses, physical creation, for fear of what it will lead him to think and desire; perhaps, he fears, it may even lead him to pray. And so he never steps beyond the narrow, frenetic streets of his city, or apartment flat, or the television or computer screen, to stand instead on the top of a mountain to look down upon it all, to see it all as maybe, possibly only a part of something much, much, mind-reelingly bigger than what he ever believed.
And even if he is ever confronted with physical vastness, generally he is so unprepared for the experience that he quickly squashes it down from four dimensions to two; he’ll take photographs of it, or videotape it, or read a book about it, like stepping on a cardboard box that’s too cumbersome to carry. He’ll put a photo of a mountain as the background of his computer desktop. Anything to tie down that motion of his mind towards things bigger than himself, to tie down the part of him that wants to consider all things in their infinite mystery of being.
In the past men thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and that there were ten crystal spheres, beyond the furthest of which was the kingdom of God. This is a claustrophobic cosmology, at least according to our current advanced understanding of the universe. And yet even then men were easily filled with awe. Even then men found something of a hint of what was to come, or what they were missing, by standing on the tops of mountains and spreading the world like a living map beneath their feet; in considering the paradox of their physical smallness and human largeness against the measure of the landscape.
And now physics and astronomy have told us of infinite space, and an infinite universe, and we are cold to it. Indeed, the new astronomer looks through a telescope and forgets that he is looking at the stars.
A symbol, it is said, is something that points towards something else. The richness of the Catholic understanding of creation has made it clear that in one sense all things are symbols; and this is precisely the great beauty of Catholic typology, and the mediaeval bestiaries. Thus, a man with an acute eye, and a finely attuned Catholic soul, will find in absolutely everything a sign of some great truth, and the greatest Truth. A man with an acute eye and a finely attuned Catholic soul will find symbols and meanings and significations in a cold dungeon cell as much as in a verdurous garden.
Yet, the simple fact is that there is a sort of simplicity of symbolism to be found in contemplating the world from great heights. Blessedly this serves to bring the process down to those of us who perhaps aren’t yet so attuned to symbols; for us it is a sort of primer course in Catholic perception.
There is also a certain simplicity of symbolism found in the very heights themselves; there is a barrenness, stripped of extraneous details, in which symbols spring out, or shoot forth, like a light from a beacon, which makes them almost impossible to miss.
Up on the pre-alps it was cold and desolate. And as we four raced to one of the crosses that mark all of the peaks, we passed by the carcass of a cow, dead and decomposing and grotesque, its protruding ribcage polished by numerous winds and rains and snows; and then, moments later, around the base of the cross against which we leaned to catch our breath were found tiny, brilliant flowers, shimmering with the colour of royalty, ecstatically alive. And beneath our feet the whole sixty or seventy flat, final miles of Italy, beyond which stretching plain may very well be the end of the earth; for nothing can be seen beyond the colossuses that stand watch over its borders, the Alpines.
There, in short, on top of that rock, that vast footstool, was everything. There was life, and there was death, and there was beauty, and there was the cross, and spread out before my vision something so very like infinity as to make one feel as though Heaven had already come, or was well on its way, and that this was it or something very like; and that was perfectly alright.
And that, I think, is something of the meaning of mountains.