Moving Mountains

I live in a beautiful part of the country – the Tennessee Valley. On one side of the valley are the Smokey Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain. On the other side of the valley are the Cumberland Mountains, ancient relics of a once great sea. The Cumberlands, true to their geological origin, were great sources of coal. When we moved to Oak Ridge in 1989, we were struck by the view of the Cumberlands, just beyond the “back-side” of the city. Their most striking feature at the time were the scars of strip mining. The contours of the mountains were jagged. The mining had changed the once gentle shape of their slopes into a strange form of step pyramid. Thirty some odd years later, a bit of reclamation and nature’s own work, have softened the effect, though the mountains will always bear the shape of their scars.

Mountains are a good illustration of tradition. We haven’t built them – we inherited them. If you lived in a Swiss valley, surrounded by the massive alpine landscape, the whole of your life would, in some manner or another, be shaped by the mountains. No doubt, Switzerland’s long co-habitation with its striking landscape has yielded many interesting adaptations (and wonderful tourist destinations).

The two experiences of the mountains are a good illustration of life with and without tradition. America loves bulldozers. We move mountains (or portions of them). My area of the world is frequently marked by spaces carved out from the hills and wrinkles of our valley. Positioned within those spaces are strip malls, warehouses, and other functional buildings. Our landscape is shaped by the economy. Buy a mountain, move a mountain, build a store.

The vast, imposing presence of the Alps forbids such earth-shaping. It is little wonder that life in many Swiss villages can be described as “traditional.” The culture of place teaches the message that we adapt ourselves to the world rather than the world to us.

A “traditioned” life is not a static existence. Instead, it is something of a co-existence. The givenness of life is allowed. The mountains get a vote (or even a veto). There are many “mountains” in our lives – it is an ever-present feature of a material existence. Our planet is “traditioned” in a very unique position. That position (and much else that has been given us) make life possible. Very slight changes to that position would make life (certainly human life) impossible. At some point in our future, the ravages of an ice age will return (and there will be nothing we can do about it).

moving-mountainsOur bodies are dramatic examples of a traditioning. For many, this seems to be annoying. Much that we imagine to be our “identity” is shaped by our bodies. Children enjoy playing “dress-up.” With a bit of costume magic, a child can be transformed from a weak child into a Master of the Universe. Of course, “dress-up” is an external event. The costume allows us to pretend. It becomes far more serious, of course, when our flesh is perceived as costume.

One need only tour the remains of ancient Egypt to see that human beings have never been entirely satisfied with their bodies. Makeup and costume adorn the burial art of their tombs. We have found tattoos on the bodies of pre-historic Europeans as well. Technology allows personal modification to reach for once unimagined possibilities. Plastic surgery in America is a multi-billion dollar annual business. We bulldoze even our bodies and faces.

There is an inner life shaped by our attitude to a traditioned existence. I do not think of this in terms of absolutes. However, there is a way of life in which we adapt ourselves and co-exist with what is given, and there is a way of life which constantly moves mountains and reshapes that which is given towards our imagined desires. They are two very different modes of existence.

Our contemporary world is rooted in the moving of mountains (of whatever sort). It has been a powerful tool in the hands of an industrial civilization. Of course, the ravages of a “managed” environment are everywhere evident to the eye. As noted earlier, I do not offer an absolute – there is always some management of the environment. But when our inner life takes on management as a dominant characteristic the results will eventually end in disaster. Mountains are mountains, and they eventually push back. That “push back” might only be seen in a resulting ugliness (like my local disfigured Cumberlands), though, most often, our insistence that creation yield itself to our mastery yields far more long-lasting disasters.

What we often fail to note is the spiritual ecology of the soul. Our culture has a way of forming our inner habits. In a world of mountain-movers, we tend to inculcate inner bulldozers. Our own lives too easily resemble the scarred landscape of constant expansion, littered with strip malls and abandoned projects. We move. We change. We do not stay nor do we grow.

St. Paul provides an interesting example. He describes a “messenger of Satan” that was sent to “buffet him.” We have only guesses to guide as to what this torment looked like. St. Paul relates how he besought God to take it away, only to be told, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor. 12). At some point, we have to co-exist with the mountains and park the bulldozer.

Beneath our co-existence with what is “given,” is a deep and proper regard for the Giver. From the beginning, human beings have been tasked with “working” and “keeping” the Garden. Modern, unfettered freedom, is a hallmark of sloth, a boredom with what has been given and an insane driving to remake the world. A Catholic writer has noted:

In sloth, we abhor what is there; we abhor what is; we abhor limits, place, order, being. Our misguided addiction to freedom without truth is a revolt of the self against any charged world which might demand attendance, care, obligation, or respect, and certainly any mandate of working to fill God’s beautiful kingdom. (Snell, R. J.. Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire).

As money has come to substitute for the inherent beauty, worth, and being of the world around us, we call in all of the bulldozers we can afford. That some of the riches people on the planet imagine that human beings themselves can be refashioned, we see the Tower of Babel in all its horrific implications.

Learning to rightly value what is around us, to give the Giver thanks for all things, and to live as workers and keepers, is not only the healthy way to live, it is probably a matter of survival.

Bless the Lord, mountains and hills,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you springs,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, seas and rivers,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all birds of the air,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you sons of men,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

_________

Source: Glory To God For All Things

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