Willow Lake, situated at just above 11,500 feet, is at the edge of the habitat where trees are capable of growing. What makes this lake unique is that the tree line happens to divide the lake in half. For the 3,000 feet from the town of Crestone to the lake, the mountains are filled with pines, furs and the occasional aspen grove. For the 3,000 feet from the lake to the summit of Kit Carson Peak, the terrain is void of trees and becomes almost lunar. Seated beside Willow Lake, still frozen apart from the waterfalls, we remain at the intersection of these two worlds. At this moment, in total solitude, we pray for grace of a silent heart; for “if you go into solitude with a silent heart, the silence of creation will speak louder than the tongues of men or angels” (Thomas Merton). As we become aware of the language of creation, tree line emerges as an icon into the Trinity. And as this speech begins, we pray for the grace to see; for “only an eye serenely at rest sees eternal patterns and intimations in earth’s passing forms … and can show in a symbol what the world is capable of revealing to the gaze of contemplation” (Von Balthasar). To truly see and hear in creation is to awaken the heart to the deepest of realities.
Let us be mindful of why we climb. Just as Sir Edmund Hillary writes, “It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves,” we too recognize that one of the noble reasons for the climb is the authentic conquest of self. To be authentic, it must not be driven by an egoistic will to power over the mountains. It is derived instead from that innate human desire to live magnanimously, free from the enslavement to passion and mediocrity. In regard to the soul, St. Ignatius develops his spiritual climbing in an analogous form:
“Spiritual Exercises …
have as their purpose the conquest of self
and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision
is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment” (Spiritual Exercises, n. 21).
Note the difference – conquest of self is a means to an end and not an end in itself (as is often the case with the purely natural). The spiritual discipline of the climb is not merely the conquest of self, though it is certainly foundational. The purpose of the conquest of self is that in cultivating supernatural indifference to created things, the will of God may be accomplished. Climbing derives its deepest purpose from the fact that the conquest of self disposes one in freedom to fulfill the will of God; for only in the will of God does one find oneself and satisfy the deepest desires of the heart. Thus we climb.
There are two kinds of ascent – hiking below tree line and climbing above tree line. For the sake of the exercise, we presume that one seeks to do both. Granted there is many a lowlander who will hike exclusively below tree line, with the leisure and ease it affords. But for those desiring the heights, the experience of hiking below tree line is often times tortuous. To climb a peak often demands an alpine start, which means that miles and thousands of feet of elevation have to be accomplished below tree line. These early hours of the hike below tree line are often the worst as the body struggles to adapt to its new fate. Likewise, late in the afternoon, when one is exhausted from the summit ascent, the return to tree line is a depressing realization that many more miles are required before the climb is complete.
I. Hiking Below Tree Line
I liken hiking below tree line to spiritual desolation. The two distinguishing marks of life below the tree line are the loss of perspective and the necessity of the trail. The former offers the greatest of psychological challenges. This loss of perspective brings forth the loss of measure, and becomes a form of forced renunciation. You simply have no idea how far you have come, and doubt whether you are making progress at all. And when one begins to experience this doubt, the entire enterprise is questioned and is now in jeopardy. Regarding the interior of the soul, St. Ignatius describes it as:
“I call desolation … darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord” (Spiritual Exercises, n. 317).
Spiritual desolation, like the hike below tree line, strips one of perspective and afflicts with turmoil, restlessness and sloth. Awareness of these effects leads to a decisive action – one must hold firmly to the trail. Hiking below trees, one’s life may depend upon the trail. Likewise, St. Ignatius’ rules for action in desolation – patience, resistance, resolution, etc. – to keep one on the path which is Christ. Without a trail, one shares in the impossible task of Dante at the beginning of the Inferno:
“Midway this way of life were bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone,
Ay me! How hard to speak of it – that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! The mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood (Canto I, 1-6).”
Surrender the loss of perspective. Hold to the trail. And the mysterious beauty of the hike below tree line will emerge in time.
II. Climbing Above Tree Line
I liken climbing above tree line to spiritual consolation. Moments of consolation do not necessarily offer an easier life, just as climbing above tree line is certainly not easier. But it is agreed that consolation is considerably more enjoyable, precisely because of the gaining of perspective and the freedom it affords. As I reach Willow Lake, I gain a visual perspective of where I have come from (the valley of San Luis) and where I am going (the peak of Kit Carson). The gifts of perspective – unity, wholeness, harmony, and proportionality – likewise radiate a new beauty. And only the experience of something beautiful can move us from the question of why do this to the question of how could I not do this. Desire is stirred by this perspective, which within the soul, is described as such:
“I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all … Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord” (Spiritual Exercises, n. 316).
Just as desolation demands the discipline of the trail, consolation affords a new freedom from the trail. Though route finding is always essential, one now has the freedom to move from the strict hiking path to the vague climbing paths, marked by the occasional cairn. A new creative dynamism sets in, to craft ones route, one’s way to the summit. It was the thrill of this freedom that Von Balthasar spoke of at the end of Heart of the World:
“I saw a steep road ahead of me and I felt my courage swell. So I fastened my knapsack and began to climb. I attempted to make myself light by following your word and forsaking all things in spirit. For a time it even seemed to me I was rising higher. But today, after all these years, when I lift up my eyes, I see your dazzling pinnacles towering over me higher and more unreachable than ever. And I have long since stopped talking about a road.”
With perspective regained and desire enkindled, we set off the well-trodden path and onto the mountain heights, always mindful that the summit is Deus totaliter aliter.
A Final Note of Caution: The moment our life is not directed to God (commitment of mortal sin), everything experienced on the mountain is opposite. I liken this to being caught in a thunderstorm on a mountain. The romantic consolation of being above tree line now becomes a lived horror, and the desolation in the trees, a safe haven. God may for the sake of our souls, become like Zeus and muster the thunderclouds until we learn how to ascend again.
In conclusion, the gaining of physical perspective at treeline offers to opportunity for a renewed spiritual perspective of transcendence. Let us be mindful of treeline, but likewise grateful for wherever we find ourselves hiking. More than everything else, let us live according to the rules of spiritual discernment and physical navigation, that our climbs may lead us from the conquest of self through holy indifference, to the gift of God through his most holy will.