For some reason whenever I read the first verse of Psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God . . . ,” I am reminded of one of the climbing trips I took as a college student. Two friends and I were trying to climb a peak in southern Alberta, just east of Banff National Park. It was called Mount Joffre. We ended up there because the instructor of a glacier-travel course we had taken suggested it would be a good fit for our (relatively low) skill level. For one reason or another we attempted a more difficult route than he probably had in mind. We almost got ourselves killed, or at least that’s how it felt.
However, it isn’t the climb itself that comes to mind when I read Psalm 19, it’s the campsite below. As I remember it, the campsite is just above the tree line. To camp there is to be surrounded by an extremely rugged panorama of ice, rocks and sky. The scale of the place feels incredibly big. You get the sense that nothing you could do could alter much of anything. The place is bold, hard and seems impermeable. It feels as though it hasn’t changed for eons. The snow comes and goes. The ice slides. Rocks scrape and rattle over each other. That’s it.
But for the lack of change and the lack of movement, that valley made a deep impression in my mind. I wonder why it has stuck with me so long. One thought I have is that part of what made the trip memorable was the difficulty of it. It took us a full day to hike in with our heavy climbing gear. Our ‘accommodations’ were austere, just a tent and sleeping bags. We had minimal food. Part of what made it memorable must have been everything we didn’t have. There was very little to distract us from the place itself. We noticed things we would not have otherwise.
Thinking about this here in the season of Lent, I am reminded of the Christian practice of fasting. Fasting, or more generally deliberately abstaining from something, is one of the traditional components in the observation of this season. I wonder if my alpine experience illustrates something about the power of this kind of abstention. Fasting from something that we consider normal—screen time, a certain type of food or whatever—can give us a new perspective on the other parts of our life’s rhythm. It can help us distinguish our needs from our wants. It can help us see that our wants are conditioned by the type of lives we lead.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe what we lacked had nothing to do with the experience of the place. That might be true. However, it still seems to me that in many ways we all live surrounded by grandeur and beauty. Not just in rocks and ice, but in people too. These things point to something beyond themselves. It might be the case that a little purposeful going without can help us get a better sense of what that is.