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Mountains and Churches

I was born and raised in a Calgary mountain culture that continues to thrive on the edges of the Rocky Mountains and numerous world famous national and provincial parks. The mountains are a way of life for many people here, and now that I have moved back home, I am thrilled to pick up where I left off.

Over the years I have often heard it said, by friends, or acquaintances: “The mountains are my church.” I have a good deal of sympathy with this sentiment, and there are few places I feel more compelled to worship God than somewhere in the back country. With family, friends, or often on my own, I love to be in the mountains. There is a kind of exaltation that can easily overcome our spirits when venturing onto an alpine cirque, tracing the spine of an exposed ridge, or looming over a steep valley from the heights of a summit.

As Bruce Cockburn once sang: “I’ve been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains.” There is a reason that many of our cathedrals imitate the soaring peaks and towers that are scattered throughout most mountain ranges. And there is a reason there must be a hundred mountains named temple, tabernacle, or cathedral. “Mountains are the cathedrals of the earth,” John Ruskin wrote, places of worship and veneration for many modern pilgrims. I am someone for whom public displays of worship can feel unnatural, but it is often while hiking that I find myself muttering spontaneous and ecstatic prayers: “I love you, Lord.” “Thank you, Jesus.” “It’s good, it’s good, it’s good.”

So, yes, I understand the sentiment, but there are a few keys ways in which the mountains are not the church in any direct manner. Some of these reasons are simply practical. There are only a few places on earth that have real mountains, and access is often difficult. Even where there are mountains, the finest trails, views, and features are restricted to those with the fitness and ability to explore them.

Of course, one does not need mountains to worship in the great outdoors, but the vast majority of major cities today are a long way from anything resembling real wilderness. It is not easy to find places where we can be overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of God. However, as we know, a key tenet of the gospel is that the experience of God does not require mountaineering or wilderness skills as a prerequisite. As Jesus said: “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-23).

There are other reasons I would push back on the notion. Though many would disagree, I do believe that our experience of the natural world, in this case the mountains, is informed and illumined by our corporate worship. Scripture, liturgy, and common prayer help us to understand just what it is we are looking at and who we are within it. We are entering a world God has created, that is good in ways that are apparent and impenetrable, even while it groans for its redemption.

While the natural sciences can provide plausible explanations of how mountain ranges have taken form and crumbled over time, they tell us less about the spiritual connections and dissonances that are pressed upon us by simply spending time in these enormous and erratic dimensions.

It seems to me that we often cede the descriptive elements of the natural world to the sciences, which operate on ascending scales of detail that sometimes mesmerize but can also bore us. It’s inevitable on every group hike that someone will try to make sense of all this beauty by venturing geological explanations or queries: “I wonder how that slab was formed?” “As the glaciers retreated,” etc.

I too have spent great effort training my children to know the difference between an alpine fir, larch, or lodgepole pine, as if the deepest form of intimacy with the natural world is understanding the distinctions between one thing and another. This is theological in its own way, as created realities were brought into existence “each according to its kind” (Gen. 1:11-25). But it sometimes lacks a deeper purchase on the real activity within our spirits and souls when we are confronted with the truly spectacular. Coleridge’s distinction (which he borrowed from Kant) between reason and understanding does provide some illumination here. There are modes of knowing that do not exclude each other, but which exist on a continuum that moves further into the mystery of God’s creation.

When out in the Rockies, I am often grateful for the threads and fragments of Scripture, liturgy, and lyrics that have somehow lodged themselves in my heart and mind: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”; “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”; “that God may be all in all”; “How lovely is your dwelling place.”

I could go on, but suffice it to say, for the Christian who is immersed in the language of our tradition, there is an intelligibility and power ready at hand to grasp and describe. This description is not merely technical or categorial, but doxological in a way that is fitting and proportionate to the world we inhabit. These two kinds of description do not need to be exclusive of one another, and for many they blend and merge together as integrated aspects of a single whole. But it is also true that today, many people seem incapable or perplexed by the prospect of proceeding from understanding to praise.

Modern language is increasingly impoverished in its spiritual elements by the corrosive effects of digital media, and by a pop-culture lyricism that is preoccupied almost exclusively with the intensity of romantic and sexual desire. The decline of poetry in our culture is related to this, but so is the decline of worshiping and prayerful liturgical communities. The ancient forms of Scripture and liturgy contain words that have been shaped by the Holy Spirit and get to the heart of the matter. As Northrop Frye would say, the best writings, the most hallowed words, are those that come closest to the Word, the central animating reason or spirit at the center of the world.

This is the biggest reason my experience of Church cannot be reduced to spending time in the mountains, because in the body of blood of Jesus Christ we are drawn closer to the center of created existence, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The created world does not always corroborate this reality and in some cases seems to resist it. But there are times when the truth of all that abounds around us seems evident and alive, and we can sing joyfully with the saints: “In his hands are the caverns of the earth and the heights of the hills are his also.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. A thoughtful article, Dane. I am happy at mass, and I am happy in the Cascade mountains near my home.

    One major difference in my church experience and my wilderness experience is that of proximity to others. At mass, I am aware of and appreciative of a diverse congregation. In the mountain wilderness, I am aware of the vastness and beauty of the natural world, mostly uninhabited by other people.

    These are contrasting experiences, each giving meaning and beauty to the other. Thank God for the creator’s presence in both.

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