Confessions of a Climber



The 13th century Persian poet Rumi once said: “Venturing into the wilderness that is God, you never know what you are dealing with.”

Out in my own Appalachian Trail wilderness, it wasn’t the camping out, or the lack of creature comforts, or the heat and grime that did me in.  It wasn’t even the walking with a 30+ pound backpack that sent me into a tailspin.   That is, until I would start a long grueling climb up a mountain.  Climbing with a pack was the most difficult physical challenge of my life.

I needed to stop frequently and catch my breath, sometimes after only eight paces or so.   There were times I wasn’t sure I could take the next step.  I made progress slowly and witnessed hiker after hiker passing me by.  Sometimes I would think I was nearing the summit of a mountain and, after rounding a bend in the trail, discover that there was still more climbing ahead.   Groaning in frustration, I could have cried—except for my pride and for the fact that all my body’s moisture was being diverted into the sweat dripping off of me onto the ground.

The physical challenge was hard, but the mental challenge was worse.  Step after climbing step, a negative internal dialogue became rampant and louder.  Self-pity: “I can’t do this. No one told me it was going to be this hard.”  Complaining: “When am I ever going to get to the top.”  Blaming: “Why did my hiking buddy plan for us to do this extra mountain today?  It’s his fault I’m having such a hard time.”  Defensiveness: “It’s easy for him (my patient hiking buddy, again) to give me advice about climbing; he is not a first-timer like me.”  Fear of taking risks: “There’s no way I can climb up that rock face!”   Self-image: “I would quit right now, but what would friends back home say?”

Fortunately when I was gazing off a mountain to the valleys below, trekking downhill, meeting other hikers, eating, setting up camp, or reading a psalm, I loved what I was doing.  I relished being outdoors. But as soon as the climbing started, the negative inner talk was winning and I was powerless to change.

I had thought I was going to learn about the Psalms on this pilgrimage.  I had thought that contemplative listening to God was the reason why I had come on this pilgrimage.  I had it all planned that I would listen through reading psalms, prayerful walking and giving attention to the present moment in an amazing creation.  Great plan for a sabbatical, right?  What I didn’t realize was that God had brought me out into the wilderness to confront me with myself.  There I experienced how this negative, self-protective internal dialogue distracted me from the present moment, did its best to drown out God’s quieter voice of unconditional love and grace, and led me to resent the tall forested slopes I had once thought so beautiful.  In a psalmist’s words (40:2) I needed rescuing from the pit of despair.

In the introduction and first chapter of Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the 12 Steps,  Richard Rohr writes that human beings are addictive by nature. In fact, he suggests,  “addiction” is just a modern name for what biblical writers call “sin.”  Rohr claims that our universal human addiction is this negative internal dialogue of our small, ego-oriented mind.  People in a 12-step program refer to it as “stinking thinking”  which involves self-pity, defensiveness, judging, promoting self-image, self-justification, complaining, blaming, comparison and achievement (which avoids grace like the plague).  This thinking hooks us, but, like all addictions, we often don’t recognize our entrapment.  When we do, we are powerless to change it on our own.

I think I know now why God took me into the wilderness to encounter this accusing voice.  My body’s struggle to climb mountains amplified it, if you will, and made me face the stark contrast between its small, self-protective chatter and my original desire to be open to God and the present moment.  It forced me to face the fact that, in this case, I was powerless to change myself.  Instead, I had to ask God for help and could only proceed on this pilgrimage by grace, not by my own effort to achieve.

It is not surprising that step 1 of the 12 step program, as Rohr notes, is to admit that we are powerless over any of our addictions and to admit that our lives have become unmanageable as a result.  Well my mental attitude on the climbing portions of the trail was certainly unmanageable! The next steps in a 12 step program are to acknowledge a higher Power greater than ourselves and to turn our will and our lives over to this Power.  For me this Power is Christ.

And that’s how climbing mountains with the Psalms became God’s grace for me.  When I would take breaks throughout the day’s hike and read a psalm, I began to hear these ancient prayers in a new way.  To be honest, in the beginning I had found some of these psalms annoying.   I heard the psalmists complain, judge their enemies, blame others and declare their self-righteousness in order to get God to answer their prayer.  What an immature view of God, I thought at first.  But it slowly dawned on me that, with my whining all the way up the long climbs, I was doing the very same thing as some of  the psalmists!  In fact, the psalms that most annoyed me were only voicing the internal, small-ego dialogue that I participated in on a climb.  The good thing in all this is that I began to hear how the psalmists also turned to God in their powerlessness and in their tough circumstances;  immature or not, they were crying out for help. They called upon God’s steadfast love and faithfulness over and over.

And I began to join them—on every mountain.  I would breathe God’s name as my lungs struggled for air, or, if that took too much energy, simply think the word “help” at every exhausting step.  And somehow I would make it to the top and keep going.  Recognizing and naming my negative, self-absorbed thinking, and replacing it with a call upon God’ s grace to help set me free has been a first step in “recovery.”  It is a first step in more fully receiving God’s unconditional love, and a step in being open to God’s joy. (No wonder why the psalmists can be so full of praise, gratitude, dancing and song.)   It is one step in the renewal I was seeking, only not in the way I expected.

My body is stronger now.  The trail built up muscles and endurance.  I got so I could hike steadily up a mountain with a full pack, without stopping, without gasping for air. Meanwhile, the negative thinking lost much of its on-the-trail power.  Yet back home now, there are plenty of other places in my life where this negative inner chatter makes itself known.  I am learning to recognize it for what it is, ask for help and move on.

Yes, venturing into the wilderness that is God, I certainly did not know what I was dealing with.  I doubt I will forget what my body and the mountains helped teach me in the wilderness: that in places where I am powerless, God is my strength; that in my weakest moments, Christ offers his own joy-filled life.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where is my help to come?
My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.

                                                                               Psalm 121:1-2


  1. “Recognizing and naming my negative, self-absorbed thinking, and replacing it with a call upon God’s grace to help set me free has been a first step in “recovery.” It is a first step in more fully receiving God’s unconditional love, and a step in being open to God’s joy.”

    There is so much packed into these two sentences. It sounds so darn easy. But we can’t even get past the first word, “recognizing,” without the Spirit’s touch. Thank you for pressing through to find and write these words. They are such an encouragement to me in my own (physically sedentary) spiritual exploration.

    • No, the recognizing the false voices is not easy, and may be impossible on our own because we are so enmeshed in this system of thinking. It takes the Spirit to get us “outside” of ourselves to see ourselves like God sees us (which includes our belovedness) and to invite us into an alternative way. The apostle Paul calls this alternative the “renewing of the mind” or “the mind of Christ.” What gives us the ability to open to God’s alternative for us, to cry for help, is only our desire or longing for relationship and love with God—a desire which God has also planted within us. It’s all grace.

  2. marsha coscina says:

    Those two sentences really spoke to me, too. I am so glad you have started writing about your journey…I have been wondering where you are spiritually/mentally/emotionally after it all….Please keep blogging about it. The Holy Spirit is doing a work in me, too….helping me get free and closer to God’s joy and unconditional love!

    • I have come to believe that my joy had been draining away for awhile. I blamed it on circumstances. But now I see that isn’t true. God’s joy is not dependent on circumstances. But that is probably another blog post. Meanwhile, God’s joy and love be yours. 🙂

  3. Kelvin Wright says:

    Thanks for this Elaine. I’m writing on my phone from a hotel room in Santiago de Compostela after a very different but very similar journey.

    Hills were my nemesis also. I walked the Primitivo, one of the harder caminos, and everyone else on the path was decades younger than me which didn’t help the inner dialogue as I struggled skyward. But the path has its own wisdom and the hills became my teacher also. Or one of them anyway.

    Ultreya! Buen viaje!

    • Good to hear from you, peregrino. Well done and blessings on the weeks of sabbatical you have left. It has been interesting to follow Clemency’s posts and learn about the Camino from them. How coincidental (?) that our journeys were about the same length in km, and that God apparently had something to teach us during the climbing. Looking forward to your writing on I am finding that it is very difficult to put some things into words, but I am slowly trying to begin.