September 8, 2010 Volume 3 Issue 10
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Dale Pleticha
“Because it’s there.” That was George Leigh Mallory’s famous response to why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest in 1924. Craving intense athletic experiences, today’s extremophiles might change Mallory’s response to, “Because it’s extreme.”
I like to hike the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Although it might be a bit presumptuous to call them mountains compared to the great mountains of the world, plain-spoken New Hampshirites originally did call them the White Hills. I hike them because they are there, and I hike them because these old mountains are extreme for my old legs. And I hike them because I find hiking them to be a holy, transcendent, even religious experience.
Over the millennia high places have been associated with religious experiences. In ancient Hebrew, the bamah was often a high place devoted to the worship of other gods; sometimes a high place, like Shiloh or Moriah, was devoted to the worship of the true Hebrew God, Yahweh. Sinai, the mountain of Moses, was a high place associated with the giving of the Ten Commandments and the rebelling of the Israelites. The Mount of the Beatitudes, the Mount of the Transfiguration, and the Mount of Olives were high places important in the ministry of a young rabbi from Nazareth.
The top of the Everest massif, called Chomolangma Goddess Mother of the World, is often festooned with Buddhist prayer flags. Kenya’s tallest mountain is Mt. Kenya, not far from Africa’s highest, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I can’t ever forget reaching the 16,400-foot Lenana peak on Mt. Kenya early one glorious Easter morning with some students and being greeted by a band of Hindu worshippers at a small Hindu shrine.
Tens of thousands of religious pilgrims each year trek to the top of Japan’s most sacred mountain, Mt. Fuji, supposedly the most climbed mountain in the world. New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock, supposedly the second most climbed mountain in the world, is hiked mostly for pleasure these days. However, in earlier days the Transcendentalists used it as a place of pilgrimage. On that mountain you may still find transcendence at places like “Emerson’s seat” and “Thoreau’s seat.”
In other words, mountains move us. Those far away and those near by do something extreme to our souls. Busy minds and anxious hearts are suddenly calmed on mountains just by their mere presence. And in the process, they seem to invite some response. Even those like Sagamore Hill in nearby Hamilton, Massachusetts, (not far from the college where I teach) has a high-placed memorial to the Agawam sagamore, Masconomet, who died in 1658. A tree there is decorated with sacred items.
When we reach a high overlook, many of us have felt as mountain hikers everywhere have always felt: we recognize the transcendent, the sacred. We feel nearer to God. We get perspective. Looking down “from lofty mountain grandeur,” we respond with the words, “How great Thou art!”
The founder of Gordon College, A. J. Gordon, born in central New Hampshire almost 175 years ago, went on to become one of Boston’s preeminent Baptist pastors in the late 1800s. He worked to revise his church’s staid worship style, so that his congregation would participate more and thus experience their God more fully. Gordon loved pastoring and was a beloved pastor.
And yet, in spite of the joy and meaning he found in his work, A. J. Gordon once wrote, “The happiest and most exalted moments I have ever known in this life are those when I stand on some high outlook of my New Hampshire home, and gaze off upon the blue hills in the distance, and see those hills rising range upon range, as though they were the very portals of Beulah land. There is something indescribable in these mountain-top experiences, and they never fail to lift me out of myself and bring me nearer to God.”
With new academic years, career challenges or cultural troubles—many of which can feel like impossible mountains—perhaps we need the same vigor as modern day extreme climbers to conquer all that is before us. Or perhaps we need simply to “stand on some high outlook” and step into a place of perspective.
Dr. Dale Pleticha is a professor of physics at Gordon College. He and his family live in Seabrook, New Hampshire.