By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
This summer I had the joy of serving as chaplain for 12 seminarians from Holy Trinity Seminary as they participated in a formation exercise with COR Expeditions. COR Expeditions is a ministry out of Wyoming Catholic College with a mission “to transform hearts through wilderness adventures in order to renew faith, beauty and wonder, community, and virtue.” Our journey into the physical and spiritual wilderness involved backpacking for ten days in the Uinta Mountains of Utah.
As we hiked, talked, prayed and celebrated mass among the mountains, I began to think of St. Anselm of Canterbury, an eleventh-century monk and theologian who grew up among the mountains of Aosta in Italy. His biographer and contemporary, Eadmer, wrote that he was “a boy nourished among the mountains” (puer inter montes nutritus). He records that as a child Anselm dreamt of ascending the mountain to meet God and to receive the Eucharist from him. As we traveled along our formation journey, I asked myself how the mountains “nourish” us not only physically but spiritually.
Anselm grew up surrounded by mountains. He was constantly summoned higher by what was greater than him. St. Paul described our life as Christians as an “upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We are meant to ascend, always, and never to be stagnant. This is written even into our physicality: when we exert ourselves and break down our muscles, they rebuild stronger to enable us to rise even higher; when we learn a challenging task, our brains grow and reorganize to execute the task more efficiently the next time. This is also true spiritually. In one of his works, the “Monologion,” Anselm notes that human reason exists in order to enable us to discern between the true and the false, the just and the unjust, the great and the greater, and so on for every good thing. Human reason, in other words, organizes our world into an ascending hierarchy and thus enables us to discern the higher step, the path to ascend from the great to the greater. In another work, the “Proslogion,” Anselm names God as the transcendent summit of our lives, or that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought. No matter how high we climb intellectually and morally, there is always God to call us even higher.
It is beautiful to think of human life as a continual ascent into greatness, into the ethereal life of God. There is always more to embrace.
As human beings, we want the fullness of life and happiness, and our conscience helps us to discern in each moment what is the “greater” choice – the choice that takes us higher into the clouds and closer to God. We were not meant to live on a boring plateau with our eyes chained to the ground, blind to the transcendent truth and goodness calling us higher. We understand, at least in our better moments, that the rewards of effort, of exerting ourselves intensely, are worth it, that gain is worth the pain, and so we’d rather flex ourselves to climb than renounce the greatness of seeking God.
Of course, we must avoid “false peaks” in life: achievements to which God is actually not calling us, and to which only our pride lures us. In every mountain range there are innumerable high points, but only one of them is the ultimate goal — the summit. Pursuing the summit involves sacrificing many false peaks that might make us look good for a while, but which ultimately only distance us from the true peak. Of course, it is also important to acknowledge that climbing can be difficult and even discouraging. If we ever feel discouraged — as we all can, when our sins and weaknesses remind us just how high the summit is — let us still never give up the trail. Baptism has united us already to the summit; we belong to him and are returning to where we belong. You belong at the peak. Slow down enough to be able to walk with your breath. Move at your pace, but keep climbing, even if only an inch at a time.
St. Paul exhorts us always to “seek what is above” since our life is like the peak of Everest concealed in the clouds – our life is a mystery “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-4). So, let’s put on our hiking books and pray for each other as we ascend, and in a special way let’s pray also for COR Expeditions and our seminarians at Holy Trinity Seminary. May we all live “among the mountains” with our hearts fixed on the summit — God himself, as he invites us to continual conversion, to continual ascent, casting down every false peak as an idol and staying hungry for the glorious view we hope to enjoy with him in heaven.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.