Mountains shape my life. This is the story of how. And why that’s relevant. For me. Perhaps for you as well. Ok, here goes.
Canton Valais, Switzerland, July 22, 2018. Valais is the home of 41, 4000m (13.000ft) mountains. Ice and snow sea as far as the eye can see, imposing stone colossus, sleepy valleys – the Alps in superlative. A paradise for anyone who loves mountains. Another world, at least that’s how it feels. But maybe it’s the real world. Or rather, maybe it is there to remind us what is real, how to really live. We are 4 Austrians, 1 Canadian and 3 Swiss. With us are climbing harness and ice-axes, crampons and oatmeal, bivy bag and tuna cans and a whole bunch of motivation. We carry 20 kg rucksacks and the question of what these mountains can teach us about life.
Ahead of us lies 156 km (97 miles) trek across 4 mountain peaks, climbing about 10,000 meters up (33.000ft) and 10,500 down again. Of the 9 days, we plan 2 buffer days for recuperating our strength, for personal and community reflection, for prayer and exchange. Our way leads us from St. Nicholas in the Mattertal to Zermatt, from there to Mettelhorn Mountain, down into the valley at the foot of the Matterhorn and then up to Riffelhorn Mountain with its breathtaking view of the Gorner Glacier. Then it goes back down to the valley, from there then 41 km up to the 2700 m high Europaweg and from the cathedral glacier to the valley opening, then in the neighboring valley Saas Fe. From there our way leads us up the almost 4200 m high Strahlhorn. We continue down to the Lötschental and up to the 3962 m high Ebnefluh (Äbeni Flue). From there back in the valley. If all goes well we will make our way home on the 31st of August.
The journey is an Adventure & Faith event, an initiative that seeks to inspire and empower people to become the best version of themselves through the experience of nature and fellowship, and to positively influence the world. This journey has the motto „4 mountains, 4 virtues.“ It is about the cardinal virtues already known by Aristotle, „wisdom, justice, bravery and moderation.“ Why Virtues? In antiquity, the virtues were above all the question of how to live to find real life. They were considered something that one can learn and practice. „Practice“ wants to remind one that virtues are not simply a given. It is not enough to decide for once and BINGO, one is suddenly virtuous.
Virtue does not happen overnight, one is not suddenly righteous or brave or modest. Of course, individual acts can be just, moderate or brave. But it takes a great deal of just, moderate, or valiant deeds to form an inner attitude that becomes an inclination. When this point is reached, it can be almost impossible to act differently – but not because you have no opportunity, but because you do not want to act otherwise. Virtue does not just mean having self-control – for example just barely avoiding the tenth beer or not cheating. Virtue makes virtuous action easy, leads to inner freedom, because of the self-mastery involved. Virtue gives joy and peace. But it is linked to discipline, comparable to an improvisation by a pianist. The spontaneity of the pianist comes after much discipline, practice and many mistakes. It means getting up again and moving on and practicing again. What do our 4 mountains have to do with the 4 virtues of wisdom, justice, bravery and moderation? That is what we want to find out in the next 9 days.
Mettelhorn Mountain: Justice
Actually, we wanted to start at 8:30, but we drove all night from Austria to avoid the traffic, but got into it anyway. We finally got going at 1:30 PM. We didn’t summit until 7 PM. The confrontation with the virtue of justice accompanies us on this first stage. The ancient Greeks understood justice as a virtue by which one gives to each person what is his due. This „what is his due“ implies that the righteous does not simply arbitrarily fix the standards of justice. It presupposes an objective order, which must be recognized and respected.
And here lies the art and the difficulty. It demands a pure heart, which is also honest with oneself. In the Bible, „the righteous“ is the saint. He gives God and fellow human beings what is their due. Someone once said to me, „For a long time I have been praying for you to become a saint, today I just pray for you to keep the commandments.“ By that he meant: before you dream of great things, take care of the basics. The will to stand upright without being corrupted. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a letter from prison that there was a time when Christians were a thermostat of society, not just thermometers. They regulated the temperature of society and did not just mirror what was already happening around them. Giving everyone what is their due is what justice means. But in this „everyone“ is included the own self. Justice and holiness are synonyms in the Bible. Why? Because sanctity is exactly what man is entitled to, it is the ability to look beyond one’s own side of need satisfaction, to grow beyond oneself, to open oneself to the grace of God, through which one can achieve infinitely more than one could dream or imagine (compare Eph 3:20 ff.).
A few years ago, a friend told me that someone wanted to give a big donation to his charitable organization, but it would ultimately come from tax fraud. He remembered how difficult it was for him not to bend his principles and to respond with a clear „no“ to the offer. To practice justice, as we all know, is not so easy in practice. It is therefore a great gift to be able to meet people who are authentic, go the straight path, as the Spaniards say, are „of one piece“ (de una sola pieza), and wear no masks. Speaking of straight roads: In the mountains it is worthwhile to stay on the path that leads to the summit. It is still possible to wish that the path marked „valley“ leads to the summit, but it doesn’t. However, we had another very unpleasant encounter with the injustice. The crampons that one of us had acquired had a defect that the seller must have known but had concealed. It only became obvious on the glacier, but thank God it was early enough before it became dangerous. It is precisely this situation that has shown us how quickly injustice can become threatening.
25th of July. Riffelhorn Mountain: Temperance
The Riffelhorn was the starting point for our reflections on virtue temperance. We had gone about 3300 altitude meters and 37 km in just the first one and a half days, we arrived on the 2nd day at our day destination at 11 PM. One of us got sick, so the rest of the team had to carry his 20kg (44lbs) heavy backpack for the last 5 hours – 40kg. We were really out of our comfort zones and had underestimated the situation. If something happens unintentionally, that’s one thing.
It gets problematic if you are completely exaggerated in your approach. But temperance does not simply mean „doing less“ or „resting“ enough, nor suppressing passion. It can also mean just the opposite, not to slow down but to step on the gas. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas would say that a virtuous act undertaken with passion can be more perfect than one where the involvement of passion is lacking, simply because it is more holistic, involves the whole person in the good deed, not just his mind and will.
Temperance has to do with finding the right measure. It’s about the inner order. It is about ordering the passions and feelings according to the mind and, for a Christian, according to the light of faith. But organizing is not the same as oppression. It’s about the capacity of being lord over oneself. It’s about the inner maturity that makes true love possible.
It is interesting that temperance opens the way to contemplation, this simple view of reality under the influence of love. How is that? Because the temperate person does not have to grab on to, lay hold of, seize, want to have for himself – be it alcohol or money or sex or recognition or affirmation or whatever. Temperance makes it possible to just let the thing looked at be, to look deeper, without having to use it for oneself or to want to consume it with greed. The latter leads to misjudgment, one no longer sees what is looked at in its true greatness and depth. One only sees what one wants for oneself. The path from the Riffelhorn was for me a single invitation to contemplation. The glistening glaciers in the evening sun, the immense mountain massifs, the soft whispering of the wind, the magnificent splendor of an inconspicuous edelweiss. To be so small in the face of this greatness and majesty, and yet to know that the Creator of all this appreciates this seemingly insignificant „I“ in an unspeakable manner. „God is so great that he can be little,“ Pope Benedict XVI once said. Pope Francis likes to quote Ignatius: „Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimum, divinum est“ – not to be limited by the greatest and yet to deal with the smallest, that is divine.
July 28th Strahlhorn Mountain: Valor (Fortitude, bravery)
This journey often enough pushes us to the limit. It is the 28th of July. Yesterday we had lunch at 10 PM – and in cold darkness at over 3000m. Why that was so is a long story. It was not planned. Anyway, at 2:45 we were back on our feet. That was not planned either, but we had no choice. With headlamps, crampons, picks, harness and ropes it was time to start the 4190m (14.000ft) high Strahlhorn. A very long glacier tour, but before 11 AM, we stood on the summit.
A hard day and tedious in many ways, but a great lesson for us. The mass on top shook me up. I realized once again how much each mass (Catholic worship service) is worth & how it pays to be prepared for it. For me as a priest, every Mass is not just a reminder of the events on Calvary, but their configuration in the here and now. I am allowed to participate in what happened then, in a historical fact, the deepest reality of which takes place in the present. This is possible only because, to put it figuratively, the tangent of time touches the circle of eternity only in the present, and therefore the present is not at all part of time, but becomes a real participation in the eternity of God. Thus, this past event and today can be simultaneous, because for God what happened then is also present now.
Ok, that was just a philosophical bracket :), but for me the real reality of this Mass was not so much an intellectual consideration, but a perceptible experience. The very arduous climb gave me a better idea of what the ascent to Calvary meant. The fact that all this effort culminated in the Mass let me better understand how well it is worth preparing for Mass. Jesus Christ has climbed more than a few thousand meters for it – spiritually speaking, Mount Calvary is infinitely high.
For me, masses on a mountain have something mystical. Mystical is not to be understood here as „irrational“ or „beyond reality“, but as contact with the deepest reason of all reality, contact with God. They remind me of our mission as human beings, the transformation of the world. God bends down so far that through a piece of matter he wanted to enter our inmost self, as Pope Francis once said: „not from above, but from within, so that we could meet him in our own world.“ God transforms a piece of matter into himself and thus elevates the entire visible material world immensely – me included.
Not „mind good – body bad“, but the material world becomes that in which and through which God visibly shows himself and makes himself present. This piece of bread is just the beginning. Actually, he wants to transform, deify, all of us … not that we become God, but that we, united with him, are allowed to participate in the fullness of life that he himself is. „The bread of the Eucharist is at the same time the cause of our concern for the environment and for all creation“, the Pope would say. I myself become the temple of God and am called to make the love that he is, through all that I am, visible in this world.
On the way on the Strahlhorn we are accompanied by the 3rd Cardinal virtue, bravery. Brave is not the reckless person. Bravery has to do with resistance against evil. It presupposes one’s own vulnerability, ultimately the willingness to die. This does not mean that every brave act has that in mind, but without a readiness that goes so deep as to include the ultimate consequence of death, one cannot speak of Christian bravery.
Angels cannot be brave because they are not vulnerable. The brave person is clear in his mind about the danger before him. As Josef Pieper once said, „If in this supreme trial, in the face of which the showman is silent, someone runs directly to the cause of his fear and is not deterred from doing the good; and further, when he does this for the sake of the good itself – which ultimately means that he is doing it for God’s sake and not out of ambition or fear that he might be considered a coward – that person and only he is brave.“ Readiness to fight for the good. But in some extreme situations, the greatest resistance will not be proactive action, but endurance. God in Jesus shows us all of this, but he not only shows it, he also wants to give us the strength to live like that. On this day my wish has become to open myself to receive this gift.
We decide not to spend another night at the Strahlhorn, but on the summit day we want to try to return to the valley and make our way to the Lötschental, where the 3962 m high Ebnehfluh awaits us two days later. That would allow us to put in a rest day. Here we meet two old friends who had supported our whole project in different ways. We gather strength, have a good night’s sleep and spend time in prayer, reflection and exchange.
Sunday, July 30th: Ebnefluh Mountain: Prudence
It is Sunday, July 30th. Ebnefluh. That was the mountain that we associated with the virtue of prudence. It meant leaving early enough before it got too hot for the snow bridges over the crevasses to carry us. A prudent person is one who has learned to let his will and action be shaped by the truth he recognizes. And since truth means the correspondence of the mind with reality – and not vice versa (that is, the width of the crevasse shapes my cognition, and consequently my behavior, not my wishful thinking the width of the crevasse) – this means first of all the need to really have a good hard look at this reality. Second, it is about weighing, evaluating, and drawing the right conclusions. The third step is to act, not to delay forever. These thoughts of Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper can also be found in the threefold step popularized by the Jesuits: „see, judge, act“ and that is exactly what we are allowed to practice out here these days.
Adventurer Megan Hine writes in „Mind of a Survivor:
„Acceptance helps you get rid of your emotional burden and think more clearly because you are no longer wasting your energy fighting reality.“ This is exactly where the virtues come in. They do not want to fight reality, but on the contrary allow reality to determine will and decision. That this is ultimately the way to freedom was already formulated by Jesus Christ when he said: „Truth will set you free.“ Truth is nothing other than the correspondence of one’s own understanding with reality.
Virtue is an attitude that has become an inclination, which presupposes a reality that one does not determine for oneself but accepts. Virtue is not a satisfaction of needs, but the alignment of one’s own life with objective standards existing outside of oneself. Not because mom or the teacher have imposed it from outside, but because one has oneself recognized and is convinced that it corresponds to reality to act in such a manner.
Pope Benedict once explained it thus:
„But we live in the right way if we live according to the truth of our being, that is, the will of God. For the will of God is for man not a law imposed on him from outside, which restricts him, but the measure of his own nature, a measure which is inscribed in him and makes him an image of God and thus a free creature. When we live against love and against truth – that is, against God – we destroy each other and destroy the world. Then we will not find life, but act in the interest of death. „(8th of dec 2005)
That is why the virtues are not about a thousand laws that foresee and regulate every possible life situation. Virtues are not external straitjackets of action, but inner drive of ever-increasing freedom. In other words, to accept the reality how it is and to ask oneself how to behave in relation to this reality in order to free oneself and find a fulfilled life is called virtue.
Glaciers demand a high degree of regard for reality. They do not care who you are, what grades you have, what kind of expectations others have of you, which smartphone you use or what kind of clothes you are wearing. Here you become humble. Humility means living in the truth: I am a creature, not a creator, and that’s a good thing. Rebellion against reality – and thus against the truth – can be fatal on the mountain. Unless one recognizes the discrepancy between one’s own perception and reality and corrects it in time. When someone falls into a crevasse there is no point in wishing that it would be different or pretending that nothing happened. Megan Hine has one rule in the wild: 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 seconds without thinking. This thinking always starts with the facts, not with one’s own wishes and fantasies. Strange that „down here“ one so often prefers to forget this.
Speaking of „down here“. At 2:30 PM we were back at our car. People walked around in sandals, it was about 30 Celsius (86 F). Only five hours before we had celebrated our Sunday Mass at the summit, in the midst of a snow and ice world. It was like leaving Narnia, back in the real world. But we will not easily forget the experience up there. And I hope and pray that what I have learned up there can once more help to shape my life down here. Mountains shape my life. Perhaps they could help shape others lives as well? That is why Adventure & Faith exists. If your are interested, give us a shout! firstname.lastname@example.org
The documentary of our trip can be seen here: Documentary 4 Mountains 4 Virtues
All pictures are property of Adventure & Faith, use with permission only