Several months ago, I found myself lost on a cluster of mountains. It was supposed to be a fairly quick and direct little hike, which had seemed simple enough when I planned it before setting out. Alas. The trail was poorly marked, and I didn’t have a map or GPS, so within an hour I realized that I was on the wrong trail, headed in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I spent the afternoon trying to rectify this mistake, to no avail, instead tripling the distance I originally intended on going, and climbing up and down all these little mountains in a pretty nonsensical way. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself that everything would be okay: I had plenty of food, energy, fresh water, sunlight, and most importantly, literally nowhere else to be (#vacation). Even if my initial plan was a bust, it was fine – maybe even better – for me to spend seven hours wandering around this mountain range.
At some point during this venture, I was reminded of Dante, because
I’m a little boring he was another person who got lost in the woods. In the Divine Comedy, Dante’s allegorical journey to heaven, he sets up Purgatory as a mountain. So the Christians who die with unresolved issues essentially become cosmic hikers. They forge uphill through a series of trials as they are purged of their sins and climb closer to Paradise. Mt. Purgatory’s trail is cyclical – it winds around the side of the mountain, so these hikers climb gradually in circles, which grow smaller and smaller the higher they go.
In the midst of my misadventure, I kept coming back to this imagery of a cyclical hike. When you’re standing at the base of a mountain, plotting a way to the top, the shortest distance is obviously straight up, rather than around. But that might be more dangerous, or exhausting, or even not ultimately faster. Regardless, that gradual, gentle, scenic, less-efficient climb feels better for the soul, doesn’t it?
I’m a Protestant, so I’m not allowed to be entirely sold on the idea of Purgatory, but at the very least, Dante’s vision of it is an interesting metaphor for the Christian life here and now. Many of us strive for perfection – wholesome lives free of sin. We understand our depravity, but believe that if we work or pray hard enough, we might someday, in this life, be better. So it’s quite discouraging when we continue to stumble and fail. It feels like we’re back at square one, needing to start over in our effort for moral perfection. (For the record: I’m also Reformed, so I don’t believe this anymore – but I used to and I understand the frustration associated with it). Dante shows us here that it doesn’t work this way. In our efforts to become better people, we might be walking in circles, but we aren’t just starting over again and again.
This mountain also reminds me of this figure that one of my professors would draw for us in college: a winding, upward spiral. When you study philosophy, or lead a generally examined life, you find yourself asking a lot of the same questions over and over, even after you thought you had answered them. This is maybe a more significant phenomenon for Christians, because some of the things we believe are really really big. We live in a place and time where certainty is king, where we like to assertively spew facts which are empirically proven. So the unanswered question is unsettling. The re-asked question even more so. That diagram was helpful because it enabled us to visualize how this all works. Yes, we may ask the same questions over and over again, and dabble in the same doubts, but the cyclicalness of it all does indeed get us somewhere – maybe closer to some answer or truth – even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
There’s a time and a place for literal wandering around a mountain, but I’m particularly fascinated in the metaphorical hike. So much of our moral and intellectual life is destination-driven, because we crave things like answers and perfection. But we don’t get to have those things – not in this lifetime. Which means that for now, we need to be content with being a little lost, with the exploration, the soreness, the pauses. We’ll get there – we’re getting there. Just not yet.