For the Catholic seeking God in the mountains, there is an expression more proverbial and iconic than any other. It is a terse Italian phrase, scribbled onto a photograph in 1925 by the late Pier Giorgio Frassati. It remains not merely the key into his sanctified existence, but an insight into the true nature of climbing. But to unpack the beauty of the phrase, we need to take a brief lesson in Italian.
“Quella è una metafora” said Alberto, my 6’5” ex-MMA Italian tutor, in his typical brusk Tuscan manner. He was referring to my question of the phrase “verso l’alto,” which out of context, appeared to this lapsed Catholic as a rather lofty aspiration. Nevertheless, to understand the phrase, he instructed me, we must remember that a metaphor is “an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). As Catholics, we feel at home with symbol and analogy, as they are central philosophical tools for the interpretation of God’s self-disclosing Revelation. Thus, figures of speech such as metaphors and similes, offer literary expressions for that which can only be comprehended in analogy. And for Italians such as Frassati, who consider Dante Alighieri to be the “padre della lingua italiana,” it is no surprise that they speak as poets, with all the richness that metaphorical language offers.
Verso l’alto, as a metaphor, is a descriptive symbol, emerging from the deep interiority of a saint to offer some orientation for those of us drawn to the mountains. We could safely presume that Frassati had no intention of this and would have been shocked to see so many of us a century later, drawing nourishment from such a brief remark. But, those who have studied his life realize how remarkable this expression summarized it. Roberto Falciola, the vice-postulator for Frassati’s canonization said, “as a short phrase, it is the synthesis of his mode of living: always to search for that which is higher, to set off beyond ourselves, towards the highest of what it means to be man” (Pier Giorgio Frassati: Non Vivacchiare ma Vivere, pg. 5). Given the grandeur of such a remark, let us return briefly to the Italian classroom with Alberto before drawing some conclusions on its true meaning.
Verso is an Italian preposition often translated as to or towards. It is not a verb concerning action, but instead a preposition concerning orientation. All of humanity finds itself existing and given this, has the fundamental task of orienting this existence. The Christian claim must be located here, with a radical proposal for an authentic orientation of one’s life. And unless the Christian himself engages the question of existential orientation, the faith remains a stale historicism of no real significance. Are we seeking an authentic existence in ordering life according to meaning? And if so, are we doing it in the form of Christ? It all begins with the question of what are we tending towards.
Alto is used as both an adjective meaning high, as well as a noun meaning height. The latter, used by Frassati, is significant because it is not the word for a physical mountain summit, which is la cima. It is also interesting to note that Alto is used in the Liturgy, which may be the way that Frassati, a daily communicant, came to consider the notion. As the priest prepares for the Eucharist Prayer, he says to the congregation, “In alto i nostri cuori” (literally to the heights, our hearts; in the English Missal translated as lift up your hearts). This beautiful moment in the Mass signifies that the true elevation of the human heart is about to take place in the summit of faith, the Eucharist.
We are now beginning to see the common misinterpretation: verso l’alto has nothing to do with climbing to the physical summit of a mountain. This famous maxim, properly understood, articulates something to be done while climbing. It expresses the Eucharistic heart in a body that climbs, and a soul that remains spiritually oriented towards a different summit – the height of Heaven. What distinguishes a Christian mountaineer is this spiritual orientation, which frees him from the slavish temptation of verso basso (lowly), which seeks to use the mountain for the adornment of his ego.
Frassati had another famous phrase, that when referenced with verso l’alto, helps to free it from any materialistic reduction. In a letter to his friend Isidoro Bonini in February of 1925, he wrote:
Everyday I understand better what a Grace it is to be Catholics. Poor unlucky those who don’t have Faith: to live without a Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for the Truth, is not living but existing. We must never exist (vivacchiare) but live (Pier Giorgio Frassati, Letters to his Friends and Family, pg. 214).
Those devoted to Frassati recognize this excerpt, especially the final words – we must never exist but live. But in the original Italian, it is even more dramatic, for the verb vivacchiare means literally to scrape by a living, as in the destitution of the working poor. No matter what we do in this life, from accomplished climbing in the Alps to a neighborhood walk, if it is not done verso l’alto, it is not true spiritual living but merely scraping by. Our climbing culture, more accomplished than ever before, has been spiritually hollowed out for this reason; as we are pushing the boundaries of physical capacity, we are simultaneously impoverishing ourselves to the point of spiritual emaciation.
Though Frassati was a third order Dominican, he was radically Ignatian in one respect. “The First Principle and Foundation” of St. Ignatius articulates the lasting insight that all created things – mountains included – are a means to the greatest good, the true alto, that which is above all creation. In other words, Frassati wrote the phrase on a photo of himself to remind us that his climbs were always an instrument for holiness of life.
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, n. 23).
It took a few weeks of Italian classes and a dose of humility to realize that verso l’alto is not a battle cry for bourgeois Catholicism to reawaken its relationship with nature. It is likewise not a call to reclaim the grandeur of man through the conquest of mountains. The phrase expresses what this saint lived, that there is adventure greater than mountains can offer. And as we scale the world’s peaks in all their beauty, let us remember that an existence spiritually oriented towards the true height, is the ascent to God himself. Or better put – verso l’alto.