As they say: when you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do. When you’re in Colorado, you climb.
When I lived in California, every day began with a cup of coffee and a surf session. The water was my refuge, the place I could clear my mind and connect with God. It was both my gym and my chapel. When I left the ocean behind to move to Colorado, I needed to find another activity that could energize both my body and soul.
My friends in California went rock climbing regularly, but I was always out on the water whenever they would go together. It was only until I moved to one of the meccas of climbing — Boulder, CO — that I decided to finally see what my buddies were all about. I should’ve known they were onto something. To my delight, rock climbing has been a worthy substitute for surfing… and then some.
I really didn’t expect “sending it” to connect with my faith life like it has. My little harness and rope has completely transformed my perspective on walking with God. Here are just a few of the revelations the rocks have taught me about both climbing and the spiritual journey.
They both require full commitment.
Anything less than a full send won’t be good enough. I can’t make it up a vertical face by giving a lackluster effort. If I try to do so, I’m not only putting myself at risk of injury but also the other climbers around me. From the moment I leave the ground up until the moment my feet touch back down, climbing requires my full concentration and full exertion.
I’m learning that the spiritual journey also asks for commitment. I can’t give or receive love the way I desire to when I’m not completely committed to grow into the person I was created to be — and I need God and a faith community to do that.
A halfhearted effort only puts myself and those close to me at risk of getting seriously hurt. Looking back at my life, the times I’ve hurt others have been — not coincidentally — the times when I haven’t been fully dedicated to where faith was calling me.
We either go for it or we don’t. No one tries to climb just halfway up a wall. When we decide to climb a route, we’re in it until we reach the top. The same is true for faith — it presents us with a decision to place our lives in God’s hands, and “maybe” never ‘scends.
Practice takes me higher.
Climbing routes are graded on a “5 point something” scale, which starts at 5.1 (a climb everyone and their grandma could complete) and goes all the way to 5.15 (the hardest sport climbs in the world.) The more I climb, the higher-graded routes I can complete — I’ve progressed from climbing 5.7s to 5.12s in the past year. It’s straightforward. I’ve always known that “practice makes perfect,” but climbing has taught me that “practice perfectly transforms.”
Practice has not only given me the technical skills to climb, but it’s transformed my body to better handle the demands of climbing. My fingers have developed calluses in order to handle smaller grips. The weird, tiny muscles in my hands that I never used in California have strengthened in order to increase my stamina. The arches in my feet have even increased in order to help support more weight on my toes. I would be stuck climbing 5.7s — maybe 5.8s — if I only climbed every now and then. Because I consistently show up every day, though, my body has been able to adapt.
If it is to deepen, faith requires daily practice as well. If we only show up to give the bare minimum, then we can’t expect our hearts to change much. God’s grace has more to work with inside us when we take responsibility for our spiritual progress. The more time we spend with God, the more his grace transforms our hearts. By consistently showing up every day, the little, unused parts of our souls strengthen and grow toward goodness.
The higher I climb, the more I don’t want to fall.
When I’m near the bottom of the climb and things aren’t going well, it’s easier to just beef it and start over. It’s one thing to fall from just a few feet off the ground, but it’s another thing to fall when I’m 30 feet high — even with a rope, falling can still be scary.
When I approach the top of a climb, I don’t want my hard work to go to waste. I want to finish what I set out to do, and my focus on reaching the top increases. That focus and discipline makes me more free: my ability is growing as I accomplish more than I was certain I could.
The same thing happens in our faith lives. When we fall more in love with God, our desires change. The things that lay behind us become less attractive, and the things that rest above us become more attractive. We desire truth, beauty, and goodness more and more. The ultimate sign of a transforming heart is one that is increasingly attracted to virtuous things. And as we reach for that virtue, we gain more capacity for goodness — we get “better” at cooperating with God. This growth makes us more free because we’re becoming the people God created us to be.
I have to let go of doing things my way.
The wall determines how to climb the wall. I can’t decide that for myself. If the route moves left, then I can’t go right. As a rule, it’s easier to climb when my body stays as close as possible to the wall. If I let my body drift away, the lactic acid in my arms and legs can build up more quickly. I’ve found that I’ll usually burn out and give up when I do things my way and allow space to build between my body and the wall.
Just as I have to be one with the wall, I need to be one with God’s will. When I don’t keep myself as close to His will as possible, I make life more difficult for myself, and I run the risk of spiritual fatigue.
Sometimes, though, I still get stuck on a climb even when I stay close to the wall and do things the right way. This generally happens whenever I attempt a route for the first time. But I learn by watching those who go before me. In climbing terms, information and advice from other climbers is called “beta.” Whenever I’m having a hard time completing a climb, beta from other climbers gets me over the hump.
In our spiritual lives, we find beta from those who walk with us and who have gone before us — their example and companionship can help to overcome any difficulties we may face. The saints and our communities give us what we need to sustain our journey.
Climbing takes work. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Practicing our faith isn’t a walk in the park either. It takes time, effort, perseverance. Unfortunately, this causes many people to move away or drift from God. It’s much easier to invest our time and energy in the places where our feet can undoubtedly remain on the ground than it is to venture into unknown territories. Like climbing, entering into a relationship with God will twist us, stretch us, even terrify us at times. But what’s the alternative? To refuse to seek? To stop growing? To accept discontent as our destiny?
We’re called to more, and it’s always a more rewarding route when we choose to send it.