‘Verso l’alto’ is a quote from Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, which means ‘To the Heights’, or ‘Towards the High’. It is a stunning phrase, filled with depths of both inspirational and religious meaning. To those, such as Bl. Frassati, who love mountains, this quote primarily appeals to that inexplicable longing for climbing the mountains and reaching their peaks. It tugs at our heartstrings which have always gazed dreamingly at the blue and purple heights rising in the distance.
Of course, there is a possible very human explanation for this secret, innate longing for the heights. Humans are striving, ambitious beings. We want to be on top. We have a ‘King of the Hill’ syndrome. We love the feeling of power that surges through us when we stand at the very top and look down upon all below us which we have conquered. And we can see everything from the top. Being on the top of a mountain combines the feeling of power and the ability to view all the knowledge in the vast vista stretching in front of us.
That explanation for the appeal of ‘Verso l’alto’, however, seems to be cold, cruel, selfish, and most of all, incomplete. The real thrill of the mountain is much deeper and more beautiful than can be reduced to selfish ambition. So what is this thrill? Perhaps I can introduce it best through a story. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called Till We Have Faces, which is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In the retelling, Psyche, the beautiful princess, is being sacrificed to the god of the Mountain. Surprisingly, Psyche does not fear this sacrifice or her death. She tries to explain it to her sister, who is already mourning her imminent loss. Psyche says,
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing-to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from-my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to see my lover. Do you not see now?
Pysche, like many of us, has felt the draw and the attraction of the mountains. She, unlike us, recognizes that the love of the mountains is the love of home, of the place she originally came from, of the God who made the mountains. In this quote, Pysche is not just giving us a beautiful image of how to approach our own deaths, she is also explaining the mysterious element in the mountains which draws us towards them.
You see, my friends and fellow lovers, mountains hold a deep and surpassingly beautiful secret. The human explanation is partially correct. When we go up, we can see better. We not only can view what is on the other side, we are also closer to the heavens. We can maybe, up on the heights, get a glimpse of heaven. We can see the stunning beauty which, the more beautiful it is, the better it is a reflection of the God of Beauty. On the top of the mountains we can, perhaps, get a glimpse of the face of God.
This, this is the secret of the thrill of the mountains! Pysche recognized that God is in the mountains, and that the God hidden in the beauty of the mountains draws us to himself, to the heights upon which he dwells. Why did Moses climb Mt. Sinai in order to speak with God? Why do we build towering, majestic cathedrals which send our hearts soaring upwards towards the Highest of the High? We are constantly being drawn up, up towards God. To return to C.S. Lewis, I have always loved the very end of the Narnia series. At the end of the last book, when all find themselves in the new Narnia, they run “further up and further in”. They run and run tirelessly, joying in the greater beauty that unfolds the further up they look and the further in they go. I think of that phrase every time I climb a mountain. It is as if there is a whisper in my ear echoing, “Further up and further in!” I know not what I shall see, but no matter the view, and no matter the beauty ahead, every step is bringing me closer to the God who made it all and who calls me to himself. No wonder I long to run and reach the very peak of the mountain!
I want to dive just a little deeper into this longing for the heights and for the mountains. For it is a longing that is more pervasive than just mountains, even if mountains are the best symbol for it. You see, it is the beauty and the hint of the touch of God in the mountains that appeals to us and reminds us of God’s face. And if it is beauty, God’s signature, then perhaps we can find that beauty in places other than mountains. Anywhere there is beauty, we shall be drawn to the Maker of Beauty. Lewis recognizes the pervasive desire for beauty and God in his essay The Weight of Glory. He explains how the elusive and secret desire for God is hidden behind our love for beauty, and is the reason we love beauty:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness…I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you…the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. …Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. …These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire. …For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.…Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies. Our sacred books give us some account of the object.
Beauty, according to Lewis, is the lantern by which God shows us the path to Him. It is the thread by which God leads us towards Himself. Beauty is the voice crying to us, “Further up and further in!” You see, beauty is not just a sensual, aesthetically pleasing phenomenon. Beauty is the key that opens the door to the secrets of truth. When Lewis is talking about our secret desire for Heaven (“our own far-off country”), he mentions moments-“the memory of our own past”-when we apprehend briefly that home. We get a glimpse of truth, as shown us through something beautiful, whether the “scent of a flower” or the “echo of a tune”. But looking back, the true beauty of that moment is not of the actual flower or tune, but of the transcendent touch of Heaven that shone through right then- “a flower we have not found” and “news from a country we have never yet visited”. Looking back at our longing for the mountains, we realize just how true is Psyche’s phrase: “the longing for home…[which] feels not like going, but like going back”. As John O’Donohue says in his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, “Perhaps this is why beauty touches us so deeply. When beauty touches us, we remember who we are. We realize that we have come from the homeland of beauty.” The thrill of the mountains and of all beauty is proof of our Heavenly home, and proof of the face of God which we seek in Beauty.
‘Verso l’alto’ becomes, therefore, not just a call to the adventure of exploring mountains, it is the banner cry of those running “the race that set before us, looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Climbing the mountain, the pain in our legs from walking and the crick in our neck from straining our eyes towards our goal strengthens our endurance and our eyesight. Our greater strength only whets our desire to reach the heights even faster. And when we reach that peak towards which we have been striving, we behold the vast expanse of God’s beautiful world. There, to quote Till We Have Faces again, “The sight of the huge world put[s] mad ideas into [us], as if [we] could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world’s end.” Climbing one peak isn’t enough. The glimpse of the face of God on the top of a mountain is the impetus to look for Him again and again, in all the “strange and beautiful things” of the world. The “longing for home” takes us over and fills us with its secret, joyous, searing desire.
The thrill of the mountains draws us to wander from mountain peak to mountain peak, seeking that glimpse of our home over and over until we reach the world’s end and behold the face of God forever in all His glory.