Last month, I spent some time hiking with my family in the mountains near Thun. This is the “Bernese Oberland” region, gateway to the Alps.
We took a funicular up to the Niederhorn (Switzerland is full of such conveniences) and hiked along a ridge for a few hours. The views were magnificent; we could see the line of the Jura mountains where we live in one direction, and the majestic, snowy peaks of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch in the other.
As always, it’s challenging but exhilarating to climb up to such heights. The realm where we ordinarily live becomes small and remote below. It is peculiarly satisfying to view it from afar, freed from its limitations, yet also comforting to know we will soon return.
New perspectives open up. We can see more, see further, see connections that are obscured when we are funneled through narrow streets and hemmed in by walls.
New dangers also emerge. Perched on a ridge, one can fall very far. Descending on paths with precarious footing is even more perilous than climbing up. Such risks are inherent in the activity of ascending into the heights, going against gravity — unlike with other directions of movement. On our round earth, going forward or backward, or left or right, may lead us through some unfamiliar places but will ultimately always bring us back to where we started. Going upward brings a sense of freedom, but also the possibility of losing oneself.
Maybe that is why mountain-climbing is a common metaphor for spiritual practice. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing” is a Zen Buddhist saying. In mythology the gods live at the top of the mountains; hermits often retreat there.
Christ spoke to his disciples from this place on the heights at significant moments, and the crucifixion itself took place on a hill, “the place of the skull.” The head is the peak of the human form, but also its nadir, where death can take hold of us through our materialistic thoughts. The mystery of the heights is strangely connected to the mystery of the depths, of burial and the grave.
The day after our hike we went to the Beatenberg caves, where according to legend Saint Beatus lived after casting out a dragon. Halfway up the mountain this cave system wriggles snakelike through the darkness, formed by the action of water on limestone. The portion that has been excavated and illuminated for public view is a kilometer long, but the caves extend more than ten times further beyond that.
Tunnelling into the heart of this great solid mass is as fascinating as climbing upon its surface, but in an utterly different way. One leaves the everyday world behind, again, but not to see it from a distance. It is blotted out, obscured by matter. The danger is not of falling, but of being suffocated and crushed.
Yet inside this obscurity, we find crystals, gems, beautiful formations of endless patience. (It takes a century to make one inch of a stalagmite.) “There is a life in you; search that life. Search the secret jewel in the mountain of your body,” says Rumi. Life is hidden in the realm of death, in all that is seemingly dark and impenetrable. To stop searching for it is to die.
Climbing and delving, journeying and searching. What are you looking for? What have you found?