Ridge Runner

I’ve never been to the Rocky Mountains, but I got to fly over them this summer. I must say that even at 30,000 feet in the air, they were very impressive. They are so different from our Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. By comparison, the Blue Ridge Mountains are gently rolling foothills. They say that the Blue Ridge is much older than the Rockies and that time has worn them down from their former glory.

One of things that you can do on the Blue Ridge is what we call “running the ridges.” It can be strenuous at times even in the Blue Ridge, but I would think that it would be nearly impossible in the rugged Rocky Mountains. Oh, there you can rock climb or hang from a cliff face, but you can’t ridge run. (Well, I imagine the Rockies have a few level places. Do the Rockies have foothills?)

Though it can be demanding, ridge running is a great experience. You can go along the tops of the mountains and find yourself in a beautiful forest (the Blue Ridge has trees to the top of the mountain), or it opens up into a beautiful view of the Shenandoah Valley. Sometimes, if you have the skill, you can ridge run quietly and chance upon a deer or two, or maybe even a bear.

You know, there are various degrees of sainthood in the Orthodox Church.There are
passion-bearers, hierarchs, monastics, martyrs, confessors, and saints. I thank God that in my spiritual pilgrimage, I have attained to the title of “ridge runner.”

One of the things that attracted me to Orthodoxy was the book The Philokalia. I read that our emotions are disordered by our sinful state and our spiritual enemies stir up our emotions as a weapon against us. These emotions are gifts from God, but in their disordered state, they become like a great cloud of dust that blocks our vision of God. Since we cannot see the light of God, we begin to experience acedia. (pronounced (ah-CEE-dee-ah) This emotion is akin to depression, but is even deeper and more profound than most depressions. All of the Fathers agree that acedia is a very difficult state of emotional and spiritual dryness. I like the description found in the classical protestant story, Pilgrim’s Progress. The author calls such a state “The Slough of Despondency.”

There was a time in my life, not so long ago it seems, that my emotions were more like the Rocky Mountains. There were great heights and deep sloughs, yet there were very few level places. Sometimes, the view from the top was dazzling, but soon after, I would be in the shadow of the valley. It was a rugged place to exist. I don’t know which was more tiring – the climb up or the tumbling down.

As a priest, this emotional battle has not only been a personal issue, but has been the main topic of most of the confessions that I’ve heard. Usually, the penitent will say that they “feel” a certain way about some issue or sin. They might say that the feel depressed, or anxious, or sad, or lonely. They will speak of how they feel little love for God and their prayers have become dry and fruitless. Then, come another day and life is good, the sun is shining, and they are on top of the world. The Bible is correct when it says “as a man thinks, so is he.” The problem is that our emotions make us think one way today, and another way tomorrow. Frankly, I learned to put little trust in my feelings.

You might think that these people are bi-polar, but most aren’t. I’ve dealt with some seriously bi-polar people and I must say that I didn’t deal with them very effectively. But I have come to realize that the Fathers of The Philokalia are correct. Our spiritual warfare is most often waged against our feelings and emotions. Should we try to make any spiritual progress, some event will occur that will bring our emotions to the boil. It can be something as simple as a minor irritation (like a stoplight that won’t seem to turn green), or it can be words from a friend or loved one that cut us to the core. It can also be feelings of boredom and distraction that make us leave our hearts at the door, and turns prayer and liturgy into meaningless ritual.Quite often, our feelings are fed by hurts and tragedies from the past.

It is good to know where we are headed in this warfare. The goal is apathy. Apathy? Yes, but not as we usually think of it. Spiritual apathy does not mean that we are emotionally dead and with no will to action. Proper spiritual apathy means that our emotions are healed, that they have found their proper place and function. Having been healed, our emotions help us to serve God and to live the Orthodox faith. This is why we can say that in the crucifixion of Christ, He suffered a “passionless passion.” That is why we might say that the Lord had “righteous anger” when he cleared the temple of the money changers. He was in no rage or anger as we sinners know the emotion. Being “fully human and fully divine,” his emotions were in there proper place and function.

Having marinated in Orthodox services for almost 14 years, by God’s grace, emotionally and spiritually, I’ve stopped climbing in the Rocky Mountains. I’m now a ridge runner and though I sometimes go down, I soon come up again. Its still a little tiring, but not like the old days. Most of the time, I run along the ridge and enjoy the view. Have I attained apathy yet? No, I’m still running the ridges. Yet, as I run, I think of what St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2: “Even when we were dead in sins, he hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved); And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”

Mountain climbers and ridge runners – have hope. He has set us in heavenly places far above the ups and downs of life. Didn’t the Prophet say that “every valley shall be filled and every mountain made low?” In the mean time, I’m ridge running. I have my two faithful hound dogs with me –Goodness and Mercy.” They have followed me all the days of my life and they still follow me along the ridges.

5 Responses to “Ridge Runner”

  1. nichole3 Says:

    I’m copying this off to read again. It is just what I needed this morning.

  2. handmaid Leah Says:

    Fr. Bless!
    Yes, there are foothills in the Rocky Mountains and there are those intrepid souls who delight in running up Pikes Peak. But to run the ridges in the Rockies would mean to have little oxygen (many peaks are over 14 thousand ft) so one would have to be very advanced to try it.
    I live on the eastern plains with a view of Pikes Peak, even over 100 miles away from me, it is daunting. What must the early settlers have thought when it came into view? Lord have mercy surely.
    This is where I am – just standing back looking at the mountain and beseeching God’s mercy. Lord have mercy upon me a wicked sinner.
    One day, I would love to be a ridge runner…

  3. xenia Says:

    …that….makes a lot of sense. Is there more out there on this??

  4. frjohn Says:

    Dear Xenia.

    Well, yes, in the writings of the Fathers you find teachings on feelings and emotions and passions and the battle that we fight with them. We strive for sobriety and humility which is the level ground before God.

  5. Naya Says:

    Fr., can you write more on this topic and others similar to it? I’m still not sure I understand HOW you can achieve the “ridge runner” state of mind, when facing daily problems.

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