O, Altitudo!

A few weeks ago, I was in Colorado and hiked a trail in the Rockies that John Paul II hiked way back in 1993 before Denver World Youth Day. Yesterday, I hiked a similar trail in the High Tatras mountains, a Rockies-like chain on the border between Poland and Slovakia, much loved by JPII. Both trails follow alongside clear, fast flowing mountain streams like the one described near the beginning of the pope’s poem Roman Triptych:

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams….
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up, against the current,
tear through, seek, don’t give up,
you know it must be somewhere here.
Where are you, source? Where are you, source?!

Perhaps not the greatest poetry, at least in translation, but he continues on, drawing spiritual and philosophical truths from these images of mountains, woods, and streams (Coloradans like to tell you he’s describing theirs). It’s a natural enough thing to do, or at least it was when we used to still have some sense of nature as a reflection of the Creator, or of something larger than ourselves worth attending to, that we cannot do without.

When the future JPII was still a philosophy professor in Poland, he had a colleague who claimed to be an atheist at sea level, but a believer when he went up into the mountains. I’ve always thought it odd that the experience of the heights did not eventually spill down into the plains for this reflective, philosophical man. It must say something unfortunate about human nature.

It’s a further oddity that in Latin height and depth can be expressed by the same word. When JPII wanted to invite the whole world to “put out into the deep” in anticipation of the third Christian millennium, he cited Jesus’ remark to Peter in Luke, duc in altum. The Latin altus means not only the deep, it is also the root for our English altitude.

Why are all these notions of height and depth still so significant for us? In the old astronomy, as we are often told by debunkers, the Earth was the center of the universe. Human beings arrogantly claimed a central place for themselves, when in fact we are the mere dust of burned out stars. C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, like everything he wrote, elegantly puts these matters straight. Earth was not the center, but the bottom of the old picture. When people looked up into the night sky in those days, they saw another world that rose unimaginably high above them, rank upon rank, ultimately passing beyond our world into true reality, God’s kingdom.

Our science shows a universe of dispersion. So why do we still imagine important spiritual matters in terms of height and depth?

I can’t help thinking it’s because we retain a sense that what lies high above us or deep in the foundations below does not subordinate or abase us, as some believe. It actually enlarges everyday human life along a different and essential axis. There’s a related insight in the ways the Eastern Christian tradition looks at the Cross. Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, says the Cross is the place where the horizontal dimension of our daily existence and the vertical dimension of the spiritual life are in perfect balance.

A lot of what has become insipid in the Church over the last few decades traces it origin to the transfer of modern ideas about social equality, which are crucial for a just political order, into the spiritual order. In the latter realm, the flatness of human equality is not only of no use, it’s simply false. There we see everything human, the little and the great, the rascals and the saints, as they truly are, high and low.

To make a sharp descent from these heights, I see that the other day Kathleen Kennedy Townsend remarked in Newsweek that President Obama represents the beliefs of most American Catholics better than Benedict XVI does. She did not seem to think it odd to define Catholic belief by opinion polls or, even more to the point, that it’s outright dangerous in addition to being absurd. We used to talk about extreme conservatives as more Catholic than the pope. Now plain social justice types are?

Our president has said in an interview that he cannot console his own daughters with belief in an afterlife – a candid admission, but hardly one that would seem to make him more Catholic than the pope. What, then, are Jesus’ Incarnation and Redemption, and the outstretched arms of the Cross for? Presumably, social equity, a real good in its way. But is this Christianity? Or could it ever be enough to satisfy what Cardinal Newman called the “wild living intellect of man?”

I can’t believe it is or could be. We see in the sad history of the twentieth century what happens when the heights and depths of human aspiration are shunted into the shallow waterways of political projects. They destroy everything and give rise to tyrannies and totalitarianisms of a depressing flatness.

There is an odd group of Psalms, numbers 120-134, all beginning with the words, “A Song of Ascents.” The first one starts in the old King James version, “I lift my eyes unto the Hills from whence cometh my Deliverance.” Our time is allergic to almost all claims of higher and lower. We think there should be no hierarchies, which is to say that we believe in a hierarchy of truths wherein equality is the highest value. But if it’s true deliverance you want, or even simple consistency, you need height and depth, because the things that are high above us and deep within are what, in the end, keep us human.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.