There is something about being on a mountaintop. Although I’ve never done anything that could even remotely be considered mountain climbing by aficionados of that pursuit, I have scaled a peak or two in my lifetime. There is something about a mountain that tugs at adventurous longings which everyday life tends to squeeze into some dark forbidden corner. Whenever I am within sight of a mountain, I find myself scanning its wrinkled, rugged face, searching for possible routes that would lead to ridges, meadows, or peaks from which the eye might feast uninhibited on vast expanses on all sides. In my ideal world, I would sit there for hours, just breathing it all in. In reality, such places are often cold and windy or replete with black flies and mosquitoes, so hours are usually truncated to minutes. But they are never forgotten.
This past summer on a backpacking excursion, my young companion and I hiked several kilometres from a high, glacier-carved valley up to a small cave. After a careful foray into the cool darkness of the cave, we scrambled our way to the top of the ridge above it. From there we had an unobstructed view of large portions of the valley below and a new perspective on the mountain peaks that rose to heights still far beyond our lofty perch. It was windy, but we lingered, heady with the exhilaration of the climb, the mystique of cave exploration, and the overwhelming majesty of our surroundings. How to put into words the way such moments permeate the soul and explode in worship of Creator God?
But mountaintops cannot exist without valleys, as every prairie-dweller who lives in the absence of both knows full well. On the same day that we sat spell-bound and worship-full, another friend received news that ripped her from what had been a mountaintop experience to the heart-squeezing depths of a breath-restricting, joy-eviscerating canyon. I don’t think I will ever forget the imagery created by the words she used to tell me of her pain – so vivid, visceral and raw, emanating from deep places within a wounded soul. My mountainside, ridge-top experience was quite literal, but her valley is no less real and the contrast between the two has been a source of pondering and reflection for me over the past few weeks…
Mountains and valleys are almost cliché metaphors for the vicissitudes, the victories and disappointments of life. We glory in one and abhor the other. Even though most of life is lived somewhere in the spaces between both extremes, it is these polar opposites that create the deepest emotions. Exhilaration and despair. Joy and sorrow. Hope and defeat.
As cliché as the metaphor may be, it is strong enough to make us long for, even actively seek out, the euphoria of the mountain. We feel alive in those moments; although describing its fullness seems beyond words, we know it is good.
Therefore, the valleys of life must be bad.
But there is something about valleys, too. From our perch above the cave, we looked down on the milky green waters of a glacier-fed lake nestled in a valley between mountains. Our hike up to the lake and then to the cave had largely followed along rivulets, streams and rivers that naturally fell into the lowest places of crevice and valley. Always going down, never up. Always carving even deeper into soil and rock.
And along the edges of these multiple waterways life flourished. Trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers. Rocks were there too, of course, but even then life sprouted from spaces in between wherever it could.
Contrast this with the mountains draped in snowy glaciers that surrounded us; barren regions either entirely void of growing things, or sparsely populated with only the most resilient lichens, mosses and short-blooming alpine flowers. As majestic as mountains are, it is only in the valleys where real growth is facilitated, where life can root deep and strong, where fruit can ripen and nourish others.
While the perspective from the mountaintop may renew me, may I be ever mindful of the lush growth that exists in the valleys and embrace this grace, too.