I am reading Three Cups of Tea these days, that now-famous story about a stranded mountain-climber who stumbled off one of the harshest terrains in the world into the arms of an accommodating village in Baltistan. Deeply grateful, he later returned to build a school for the children of the people he had come to love in the tiny village of Korphe, even though the town sat on the edge of one of the most forbidding, remote places on earth.
I ducked into Barnes and Noble the other night and bought this on impulse because, frankly, I am trying to figure out what work God has for me in the world, and I want to read about the great works of other people. Greg Mortenson’s story, and his years of hard work and haphazard living and trips back and forth and half-starts makes me feel better, and of course, inspired. But something that has haunted me the whole book, something I felt I needed to understand in order to get down to the soul of this story, was the whole why of mountain climbing in the first place. It plays as a theme throughout the tale- the allure of these sere, murduerous mountains, the climber’s drive to reach the summit despite tortures no medieval dungeon every conjured- frostbit, pleurisy, lack of oxygen, months of near-frozen living. As I was falling asleep last night, I found this quote by a mountaineer friend of Mortenson’s:
In the quiet of the hospital, I pondered the lessons we have learned. Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished.
Somehow, in that quote, I understood the drive to climb the world’s most dangerous mountains as a quest as much of the spirit as the body. I realized that Mortenson’s all-else abandoning determination to build his school took the same singleness of purpose it would take to scale Everest. The impulse to a great work of kindness for the people of Korphe was kindred with the impulse to ascend an impossible mountain, to try, to dare, to fight. I began to see climbers as people of vast hungers who must, must push beyond the easy valley life and ascend, up, to the impossible. In that realization, I finally understood these mountain climbers. And I realized that it is with their very grit that I want to live my faith, and each day of my life.
God is the Everest I will climb. His kingdom is the strange, far-away land that I am willing to leave every comfort of my easy, comfortable valley life to find. I’ve realized lately that I’m hungry for a work. A task that will demand the whole of my life and effort. That hunger has taken lots of different faces in the past couple of years. For awhile, I thought I could sate it by study. I applied to everywhere from Oxford to the community college in town. But never did I feel at peace. I’ve written essays in torrents of words (especially of late), trying to fulfill this hunger for a purpose. I’ve dreamed and planned endless things that never came true, but helped me stay sane because they filled my mind. And, I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do. But reading this book has made me realize that the hunger is a holy thing. That I was meant to work my heart and soul and strength out in the search for my God and in service to his beautiful kingdom. The hunger I finally understand in the mountaineers is the hunger I want to cultivate within myself into a determination to dare greatly for God.
Because truly? There he always is, on the periphery of my sight. This mountainous, pure, shocking Eternal that almost frightens us. The sheer, snow-capped beauty of him is, for me, a siren call in the moments when I remember to look up. I think we all of us carry an ache for his holy air every day of our lives. But I don’t think many of us set out to climb him. We watch from the safe distance of normal valley life. We honor his immensity, but we stay at home were ease is guaranteed. Maybe that is good and right in its own way.
I want to be a climber though. I want to know my God, I want to enter the terror and pure light of the heights of his real presence in this fallen world. That’s what I’m realizing through reading this book. The impulse of Mortensen in climbing and humanitarian work, the impulse of Mother Theresa, and Brother Andrew and any entrepreneur is the impulse to move beyond the small we see and dare the great we know is waiting beyond. Mountain climbers know something true about the world, they understand that we must dare great things because there is a true and great beauty to be had if we will fight our way to it. I want their spirit in my living.