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Notes from a hiker's journal

From the August 15, 2011 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Psalms 121:1-3

This article had to be hiked before it could be written. There I was at my Mac, plugging away at an overdue draft, when my wife, Anne, asked me if I’d like to go for a hike. My first thought was, “I don’t have time!” But before my lips could move, I was lacing up my shoes. What better place to be writing about mountaintop prayers than on a mountain? And so it proved. 

Our hike took us up Mount Jefferson, just a few hundred feet below Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the northeastern United States, and famous for having the harshest weather in North America. Gratefully for us, the snows had all melted and the weather report called for clear, sunny skies. It was shaping up to be a spectacular summer day, puffy white clouds sailing overhead, and only 2,700 feet of vertical climb ahead of us. As we made our way to the summit, I had a lot of time to talk with God about “mountaintop prayer.” Here are some notes from our hike and the spiritual conversation that ensued. 

Designed to climb

Our guidebook called for a “strenuous hike”—five miles round trip, with a steep elevation gain that would require “scrambling over boulders.” The author wasn’t kidding! As we reached the one-mile mark, we were already wondering if we were up for this climb. We were breathing hard, and the challenging part of the trail still lay ahead. The summit looked a long, long way off. Then I heard the words: “You’re designed for this climb. Just keep going.” Something to ponder. We pushed on. The higher I climbed, the more sense it made. As the spiritual child of a spiritual God, I reasoned, it was my nature to ascend, to aspire, to go higher. I recalled Mary Baker Eddy’s words “Desire is prayer; . . .” (Science and Health, p. 1). I smiled. Prayer is natural. It’s built-in. “I’m made for this climb!”

“I’m drawing you up”

When the trail became steeper and more rugged, a new thought voiced itself: “I’m drawing you up.” It was a familiar phrase, but I couldn’t recall the exact passage in the Bible. I asked Anne. “With lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3), she reminded me. That’s it! God’s love is certainly greater than the resistance I’m feeling. I was being drawn up higher by divine Love itself. Nothing can oppose God. As plants are drawn to the light, so we’re drawn to our Creator, who is Love and Spirit. A powerful prayer. I felt immediately refreshed. 

“I can do all things”

The boulders kept coming. Walls of them. Then we started meeting people coming back down from the summit. “You’ve still got a ways to go!” they told us cheerfully. Not what I wanted to hear, but I appreciated their honesty. Maybe it was time to turn back. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” was my next companion thought (Phil. 4:13, English Standard Version). It’s one of my favorite quotes from St. Paul’s letters. I’ve leaned on it many times. For Paul and the early Christians, the strengthening Christ wasn’t an abstraction but a vivid, constant presence in their lives. For Christian Scientists, the Christ is also a very real presence. It’s the voice of universal Truth speaking to each of us individually in our moments of need. And I heard it: “I’m with you on this climb. I’m sharing your load. I’m lifting you up.” 

Look for the cairns 

Cairns are carefully laid piles of stone marking the way up a mountain. These waymarks are crucial in the higher elevations. As Anne and I got closer to the summit, we needed to pause often and seek out the next cairn. If we didn’t look closely, we sometimes missed it. Rocks on rocks aren’t always easy to spot. But they’re there. Solid reminders that many had made this journey before us and marked the safest path to the summit. And reminders that the path we were on had stood the test of time. 

When we pray, we can be grateful to be walking in the footsteps of spiritual pioneers before us. Companioning with the lessons they’ve learned. The Bible is a journal of faithful climbers. Christian history is a record of people who persisted against enormous odds. We can be inspired and strengthened by their love and courage. Jesus taught us to pray for “daily bread.” This nourishment comes in many forms, just like those cairns. It might be the generosity of a stranger. Or the melody of a hymn that comes to us just when we need it most. God gives us spiritual cairns on our journey upward. Watch for them. Follow them. 

Don’t ever, ever give up

I can’t tell you how many times we wanted to turn back. It wasn’t just the boulders. There were biting flies. Problems with shoes. A hot sun. And the biggest obstacle of all: the body talking to us. Tired muscles. Aching feet. Heaving lungs. The higher we got, the louder the body shouted. Or so it seemed. With a half mile to go, we wondered again if it was wise to go on. The rest of the way was a steep ascent over what looked like an endless boulder field. 

“This is a mental challenge,” Anne said aloud. “It’s not really physical at all.” Her words rang true. Our bodies weren’t the problem. In fact, the body wasn’t doing the talking. Mary Baker Eddy laid down the gauntlet on this very point: “Do the muscles talk, or do you talk for them?” she asked in Science and Health. “Matter is non‐intelligent. Mortal mind does the false talking, and that which affirms weariness, made that weariness” (pp. 217–218).

Too often, when we’re praying about a physical challenge in our lives, the voice of mortal mind tries to turn up the volume. “You’ll never make it!” it screams. “It’s foolish to rely on prayer for such a big problem. Give up!” This is the very moment when humble prayer enables us to stay the course. “God hasn’t brought you this far to abandon you,” is what we hear as we listen deeply. “Follow me,” Christ Jesus told his disciples. Yes, the way our Master trod was not easy. But it is the only safe and sure route to the summit—the only way out of the mortal dream. The voice of the Christ, Truth, dispels our fears and doubts, and restores our natural trust in Spirit. 

As we continued upward, the climb actually got easier. The views grew more expansive, the air cool and invigorating. We were climbing with inspiration, conviction, gratitude. Then, we reached the summit and caught our first 360-degree view of the world around us. It was an awesome sight. And isn’t this what happens at the summit of our prayers? We see what the five senses have obscured: the presence of God’s all-encompassing goodness and love, the panoramic substance of spiritual reality. Right here. No matter how substantial the problems we’re facing seem to be, they’re nothing compared to the grandeur of God’s creation. The spiritual view is worth every step it takes to reach it. And every step is supported by divine Love. 

Be like children

OK, in the spirit of full disclosure, we met some very young children during our hike. Each of them made it all the way to the summit and back. One little guy was just five years old. We cheered for him as he walked the trail beside his dad. What an inspiration! It occurred to me later that he probably had some help over the biggest boulders. No doubt his dad held his hand tightly and encouraged him during the steepest sections of the climb. But that’s what our Father does for us too! Anne and I hadn’t made it to the summit through our personal strength. That’s for sure. We’d reached out to our Father-Mother God all along the way. And we had been lifted up spiritually. Prayer isn’t rocket science. It’s as simple as putting your hand in God’s. Trusting. Following. Feeling joy as you journey forward. 

Bring the mountaintop home 

Anne and I sat on the summit just long enough to savor the feeling of grace that had taken us there, and to drink in the beauty surrounding us. But we couldn’t linger. It was late afternoon, and we knew the climb down would require just as much of us as the ascent. 

Actually, it required even more! Many of the steps seemed bigger and steeper going back down. We had to crawl in places. I thought of how Jesus came up to the mountains to pray, and then courageously, compassionately, took all that he saw at the summit into the nitty-gritty of human experience. He kept the vision. So can we. 

At one point, when Anne and I were feeling spent and the last mile seemed like ten, she asked, “What’s the spiritual lesson in this?” A response tumbled out of my mouth: “Don’t leave the mountaintop!” Yes, that’s it. Even when you have to come down from your communion with God and fix a meal, get back to work, take care of your body—don’t “come down” mentally. Hold tight to the spiritual vistas you’ve gained in your prayers and don’t let them go. Carry the mountaintop view with you. And don’t ever, ever believe that prayer is tiring or too much work. Or that you’re growing weaker because of the journey. We are designed for this heavenward ascent. We grow stronger by staying with it. Mountaintop prayer brings us to the realization that the spiritual view of life we’ve glimpsed at the top is the view our Maker holds of us all along. Prayer isn’t so much a process of “getting” to the summit at all, but of letting this spiritual view of reality be our mental starting point each day. And thanking our Creator for giving us this vast, gorgeous view of goodness that is our heritage as His children.

Chet Manchester is a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer living in Ballwin, Missouri, and summering in New England. One of his lectures, “Hiking the Sermon on the Mount,” includes scenic hikes while exploring Jesus’ mountaintop message.

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