Wednesday 4 September 2013

At the Summit of Pain and Beauty

By John O’Brien, S.J.

Photo: Douglas Pham

Midway this way of life we're 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!

— Dante, The Divine Comedy 

Recently I was pressed, several times over, to the threshold of my absolute limit for pain tolerance. It was physical, I’m happy to say, for I’ve experienced the other kinds, and I’ll take the bodily over those any day. No, I am not fishing for sympathy here, as I hope will soon be clear. The pain was a gift, a “hard consolation”, as we followers of Ignatius would say, but it was acute and prolonged, and did play with mind and emotions. The whole thing was actually quite epic, and so the story should be told from its beginning.

The idea of a hike sounded like a good idea. A new school year, with its many pressures, courses and boardroom meetings was about to begin, and what better way to freshen and brighten the soul, than a hike up Vancouver’s greatest peaks, a pair of sisters known as “The Lions”. It would be a challenging hike, rated “difficult” on the website, but a little sweat, blood and tears would be a good healthy purge. Besides, I told myself, if things get too grueling, I’ll offer it up in reparation for the effects of my sins. I pre-spiritualized the experience, forgetting that surprises often await those who try to program the Lord’s way.

Photo: Aiden Wickey
The trail was popular that morning. People had even brought children and small dogs to make the climb, an ascent that was supposed to take four hours. Midway through, the gently steepening trail became a more strictly vertical climb, amid towering Douglas Firs and Red Cedars. I think then I had a premonition that I may have taken on a burden I was not prepared for. But I slogged on, amid several rests, and eventually the trail crested onto the most spectacular viewpoint, overlooking a deep valley surrounded by peaks, and just under the shadow of the Western Lion. At that point my legs cramped up; I collapsed. They were telling me in no uncertain terms that nearly four hours on a Stairmaster was their limit.

But there are tricks to the hiking trade. One of my companions gave my legs a karate chop rub down, which relaxed the muscles, allowing me to continue on to the summit. There we rested for an hour and broke bread, after nearly 1280 metres in elevation gain. We could see Howe Sound sparkle far below us, and though the day was sunny, the cold air sent a glacial chill through my shirt which was thoroughly soaked. We donned our fleeces, and dined on roast pork and sandwiches. This should have been the turn-around moment, for the descent would also take three to four hours. Instead, we opted, I’m not sure how, to take a more round-about route. Many times, in the hours that followed, I regretted that decision.

It was much longer than we expected. We climbed up and down three more peaks, went down the wrong side of a mountain – and had to climb back up (a low point for everyone), and became increasingly unsure of the way back. We never saw a single soul beside ourselves for the rest of the day. If four hours had caused my legs to rebel, every hour thereafter was agony. My mind focused on commanding my protesting body to continue, and dark visions clouded my imagination: Frodo and Sam near the end on Mount Doom, the Bataan death march, helicopter rescue teams arriving to extract the poor college instructor who bit off more than he could chew, and even, I confess, the via crucis itself (earlier, some of us had taken to humming the theme from Jesus of Nazareth).

Then, at some point, it dawned on me: the experience was not completely infernal. In fact, it was not unlike Dante’s journey into the three realms in The Divine Comedy. Not a chronological voyage through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, but that elements of all three were interspersed throughout. I decided to see how God was present, and catch glimpses of paradisio, though I had to pay attention, which was difficult when most of my efforts were palliative.

Photo: Aiden Wickey
First, there were moments of sublime beauty. The landscape itself was clearly the kind of place saints go to when they wanted to talk to God. The scrub trees along the razorback paths were like Japanese miniatures, and the alpine flowers like jewels. At the most difficult points, when the trail seemed designed more for mountain sheep than for humans, the most luscious mountain berries grew in a preternatural abundance. Clusters of ripe huckleberries and blueberries hung, gift-like, along the trail, just enough to energize and comfort. But it was the spirit of God in our group that struck me the most. What could have been every man for himself, remained an occasion of fraternal support. Everyone on our team, at various times, took turns holding back and hiking with the slowest one. We encouraged each another, even when we did not know exactly where we were.

Eventually, as the sun was going down, we reached a sign at a turn-off in the trail that pointed the way down. There were still hours to go, but providence guided us along our pathway, at times overgrown and bushy, at other times, an ancient logging road. Earlier, on a random peak, a member of our party had found an electric lamp sitting on the rocks. It still worked. Now, as darkness enveloped the mountain, it was an indispensable gift, as we limped the final hours down the mountainside.

The burgers and beer that we devoured at Horseshoe Bay late that night were also paradisaical, even if we were a little delirious. But looking back, I marvel at how a single day can contain so much metaphor for the spiritual life. There are times in our lives when we undergo duress, seemingly pushed beyond our limits. In these moments we may see that we are not alone, but being tested, expanded, and that just enough strength to sustain us will be given along the way. If we are lucky, we will see how the glory is contained exactly there, in experience of the suffering, all being turned to the good. And even if the turning seems like a grist-wheel, we shall know that it is turning, "all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars."


  1. Well, the stairmaster analogy brought things right smack dab into your reality! I guess I just would have died, eventually!

  2. This was a great read. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Mikhai. And Regina: I think you would have played your violin all the way down! - John