I recently interviewed a transitional deacon in our diocese who will be soon ordained into the priesthood, and a large part of his vocation story involved the metaphor of a mountain. Describing his journey toward a wholehearted yes to God, he said, “It was like I was running away from the mountain God wanted me to climb. I started off making the ascent, but then I stumbled and fell upon the rocks of earthly pleasures. Eventually I hit rock bottom,” which led him to realize he was running away from his vocation.
I’m no mountain climber, but the spiritual allegory was not lost on me. Don’t we all show a bit of resistance, at least initially, when God invites us to ascend the mountain of holiness? Thinking back to Sanjuanist (St. John of the Cross) theology, his book, Ascent to Mount Carmel, describes that arduous climb we avoid because of its appearance and mystery.
To many of us, the mountain seems ominous, overbearing, and unwelcome. We are so small in light of its grandeur. It may beckon us, or we may be allured by curiosity, but in the end, we accept the reality that climbing it will be painful, difficult, and at times treacherous. Who wants to take that risk? In the interior life, making the climb to holiness at times entails intense mortifications, at other times development of virtues and uprooting vices, and still other times the stillness of waiting on God to move in and through us.
Still, we cannot achieve Heaven without the difficult ascent. While on the mountain, we don’t often feel as if we are closer to reaching the apex. Instead, we occasionally fall or falter. We encounter unexpected squalls and predators. We grow weary and weak, hungry and cold. The elements may shatter our once vibrant zeal that led us to accept this ascent to holiness without question. Now we question.
That is the purgation of the dark night, as St. John of the Cross tells us. Very few people accept the gift of holy darkness, though many are invited to enter into it. There are some souls who are able to bypass it, but most of us will, at some time in our lives, experience the difficulty of the work of sanctification. Like the mountain climber, we must persevere through the dryness and missional loneliness.
I’ve been reading a new release by Sophia Institute called On Suffering and Burnout. Mother Angelica writes about this spiritual ascent:
[There is] one phenomenon during our climb and that is a certain kind of loneliness. The further up the mountain we travel, the fewer companions we have. There comes a time when all things seem to drop behind and we find ourselves alone. When we finally arrive on top, the loneliness is gone, for we see things differently. We see all our former companions and possessions as they really are, with no illusions, no regrets, and no attachments (p. 90).
It seems that, as we climb higher – or are more purified in our interior disposition – we understand that this journey is specific to us and no one else. Our particular call, whether it is a vocation to the religious life or married life, or maybe a “call within a call” to an apostolate, missionary life, or particular talent, is one that can only be fulfilled through our continual yes to God. The higher we ascend, the more difficult it becomes to persevere, because we find ourselves alone – with little to no support from family and friends, and likely no spiritual consolations that we are, in fact, pursuing the path that God wills for us.
There comes a time when we must choose to forsake our former way of life, including our attachments to relationships and the consolations we receive from affirmations and accolades. During the purgation of our souls, the spiritual aridity can consume us. Some of us will abandon our quest, while few others will press onward by sheer will.
I can attest to the challenge of such a journey. About seven years ago, before Ben and I had our children, I was sitting in our house studying St. John of the Cross’s description of the ascent, and I noticed a painting we’d had for years. Through that image I realized that God was calling me to something new, a different path than what I had been following. He made it clear to me that it would be painful and difficult at times, but that it would produce goodness beyond measure.
I saw the image of His outstretched arms, beckoning me to come to Him in the midst of an ocean tempest, and I hesitated. It was evident that this journey would involve suffering I could not foresee, and that terrified me. But I saw His hands, which were extended in an invitation. He did not prophesy everything that would happen in my life, only invited me to come closer to Him. And that’s what I really wanted – union with Jesus. So I said yes, not knowing what that yes would encompass.
We have to renew our yes to God on that ascent up the mountain, sometimes daily. It must be deliberate and intentional as we make our way towards Heaven. It cannot be reluctant, but wholehearted. We can say yes to God as He continues to invite us to come closer to the pinnacle. Though we don’t see what lies ahead or beyond, though we may never know in this life what we are striving for, we know that once we have begun the climb, to turn back would be a grave mistake. We can only keep moving forward in faith.