High Places

I love mountains.  I guess I didn’t know that before living in Colorado and New Mexico for four years, not that it’s something I’d have suspected growing up in a seafaring nation that prides itself on being an island!  Most mornings of those four years I was greeted soon after leaving our house with a breath-taking view of the Rocky Mountains, occupying the horizon west of Denver and stretching as far north and south as the eye could see.  (The Rockies dominate local geography to the extent that directions are often given relative to them — “go toward the mountains” or “head away from the mountains” instead of “turn left” or “go right” — which is fine unless it’s a rare cloudy day, or it’s night-time!)

During my internship in Albuquerque, we lived in the foothills of the Sandias.  At a mere two-miles high rather than the Rockies’ almost three, the “watermelon” mountains may be less majestic than their snow-capped cousins to the north, but I found them more approachable — not just physically but emotionally: I found their proximity and solidity a source of comfort, even if it meant that our mobile ‘phones rarely had signal!  Every morning, stepping out onto the driveway, I would look up, and the Sandias were there, ready to greet me.  I found myself developing the spiritual practice of reciting the version of Psalm 121 improvised by Christine Robinson, Albuquerque’s minister and my mentor:

I lift my eyes to the hills.  Whence will my help come?
My help comes from the creativity of the cosmos
which is making the Heavens and the Earth.
It comes also from the core of myself.  It is my guide and hope.
On this path I am safe whatever befalls me.

Last month I enjoyed getting to know two areas of North Carolina’s High Country: the Mountain, the Unitarian Universalist retreat center near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then Watauga County, including the towns of Blowing Rock and Boone and the aptly named Grandfather Mountain.  For all that I lived at an altitude of a mile or more for four years, it was a very different experience to stand on the “Mile High Swinging Bridge” than spans the ravine between two of Grandfather’s peaks, looking out — and hundreds of feet down — to the surrounding countryside!

Setting my vertigo aside, though, there’s nothing like being in such a high place to get an immediate idea of where I am; with the land laid out beneath me, I can see where I’ve been and where I’ve yet to go.  It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the ancients located their gods on mountains, from which they could see what was going on in the human world, a gods’-eyes view that necessarily eluded mere mortals.  After all, with imperfect memories, limited awareness of what’s happening around us, and next-to-no ability to anticipate the future, it’s difficult for us to climb out of the valleys and canyons of our human lives to reach a higher place of mind and time, much less a mountain top that affords us a panoramic view of history and destiny.

And yet we are blessed with creativity and imagination, with abilities to be confident in ourselves and to trust our companions on this spiritual journey that we call life.  We may not know exactly where we come from, but in sharing stories we can get an idea of where we’ve been.  We may not be completely clear on what we are, but in building community we can appreciate who is with us.  And we may have little idea of where we’re going, but in dreaming together we can explore what might be.  Come, let us lift our eyes to the hills!  Let us be one another’s guide on this path, offering hope with a smile and an out-stretched hand.

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