At the summer camp where we live three months out of the year, there is a trail which leads up one of the surrounding mountains to a wooden cross raised at the top. I know very little about this trail. The first twenty feet curl up a mossy bank and disappear into a green-lit grove of pines. We call it simply The Hike to the Cross, and I have never done it.
I have hiked many other places: up to Raven’s Crag, along the old bike path, past the angle-ball field, and through Big Meadow. But I have never hiked to the cross. There have been a multitude of reasons over the years, and each one seemed to be or actually was important. But one Wednesday after dinner, I set out to walk around the lake and decided spontaneously to deviate up the trail to the wooden cross.
I am not sure what inspired me. Perhaps the better question is what drove me. I felt less curious and more desperate.
Camp can be a lonely place. For most of the year we attend our church and spend evenings with friends, meet up for playdates and coffee dates, and maybe get dressed up for an actual date. Then for three months we come up here, an hour’s drive and a million scheduling conflicts away from the community we love so dearly, and my heart aches.
I was lonely that Wednesday, and the cross is on the top of a lonely mountain, and I wondered what weight might be lifted from me if I could carry it to that dizzying height.
I do not often have time for my morning Bible reading at camp. At our “city house”, I take my Bible and a book of poetry outside first thing in the morning while my husband gets breakfast for our kiddos. I sit in the sun and read for five or ten minutes. At camp, my husband goes down to the office at 6:40 a.m. and I am busily making breakfast and settling sibling quarrels nearly from the moment I open my eyes.
The theology I find at camp is a physical thing. The self-control it takes to override the tight anger in my chest at the 104th sibling fight of the day; the physical stamina of carting laundry down from the upstairs bedroom and down again to the separate laundry room, and back up and up; the sun in my eyes in the mornings when I step out onto the porch, warm and soft like the gentle hand of God; the walk down to the dining hall for lunch and again for dinner; getting caught in the rain, a wash of grace against the land. The flight of the Great Blue Heron, the dazzle of sun on waves, the rocking of a canoe on the water. I have spent many, many hours studying the heady tenets of truth in the pages of my Bible, consulting commentaries and cross references. But truth has a physical force to it here.
I marched up the trail to the cross with shaking legs. Sweat dripping. Tripping sometimes, in my impractical sandals. Aspen saplings brush their young limbs against my arms, my cheek, my neck. I didn’t push them away. I carried the loneliness of the summer with me like a physical burden, like a heavy pack thumping against my ribs with each step. My lungs constricted with gasping from the climb, and with grief.
It took nearly half an hour before I slid precariously over the last steep boulders and settled down at the base of the cross. I wrapped my palms around the dry, twisted wood; closed my eyes, bowed. In that moment, Truth seeped out of the onion-skin pages of my Bible and took on shape.
Truth wears splinters here. It feels like aching feet, and it tastes like fresh air, and it looks like sun sinking blindingly level with this old, weathered wood. I sat for a long time.
There was a bush growing there with white flowers, fragile and generous, just beginning to open. I breathed slowly and beheld the splintery ruggedness of the cross and the tender white of the blossoms. I don’t know what equips the frail branches and the feather-soft flowers to thrive on a bald and stony mountain top, but they were there, simply and abundantly, growing at the foot of the cross.
Nothing was lifted from me while I sat there. No euphoric realization clicked into place. No promise of loneliness abated or burdens lifted. There was only truth: the harsh wood and the soft flowers. Rough pine and tender green leaves. I stood up eventually and began to walk back. Not lighter, but not alone.
I know the path now. I know the worn way to the cross, the steep and unforgiving hike, the vast views and tender beauty of the top.
The Gospel began not as a word on a page but a Word with sweat trickling down his back. A Word who hiked in places with deserts and rocky mountains, who saw and spoke of the lilies of the field; a Word who knew both the splintered roughness of the cross against his skin and the white blossom of redemption on Easter morning. He was a Word who knew loneliness and the dirt of sandaled feet and the deep grief of being separated from his friends.
Here, faith gets sweaty with climbing. Truth aches like feet standing on immovable stone. Here the cross is not only a weekday burden or a Gospel story, but a dried and twisted beam at the top of a mountain. And grace falls like tender rain and blooms as a white flower where it seems that nothing should grow at all.
The featured image, “View from Nanny Brow,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Gianna is a mountain dweller but still at heart a Minnesota lakes girl. She is the giver of peanut butter sandwiches and abundant tickles to the two littles, and the owner of too many blue striped shirts. Adventure-hearted, but also a connoisseur of cozy, book-ish evenings, she is delighted by coffee and cocoa but, shockingly, not tea. She is an amateur wildflower naturalist, picker of wild raspberries, and sunset gazer, equally fascinated and challenged by the myriad ways that small and steady faithfulness transform a strange place into a home. She is a writer, dreamer, wife to Grant, mama to E1 and E2, and more than the sum of her parts, just like you. She writes here and everywhere else to mine hope out of our ordinary moments.
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