High Places

Do not go outwards, but travel into yourself, for truth lives in the interior of the human being.

-- St. Augustine

The early Renaissance poet Francesa Petrarch may have been the first man to climb a mountain because it was there. Sir Edmund Hillary grabbed headlines when he expressed similar sentiments after conquering Mount Everest in 1953. But Petrarch did it some 600 years earlier in scaling Mt. Ventoux – the tallest peak in Provence at over 1,600 meters. This was at a time when people did not climb mountains for recreation; indeed, Petrarch is now sometimes credited with being the world’s first true alpinist, as well as its first humanist. ”My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. From Ventoux’s summit, he could look east to his homeland in Italy, north to the Alps and to the mountains around Lyons and west to the Rhône River flowing south to the bay of Marseilles.

Any sense of accomplishment he may have felt at arriving at so great an elevation proved short-lived. Petrarch had brought with him a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, which he now opened. His eye fell randomly upon the following passage: “Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty billows of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by.” Petrarch later described himself as “abashed” at this moment. It was as if Augustine’s words had been lying in wait for him, waiting until the world literally lay at his feet, only for him to discover it was all an empty display. Remembering that Augustine had experienced a similar moment of enlightenment when his eye fell upon a passage from one of St. Paul’s epistles, Petrarch decided this could be no accident. Descending the mountain in silence, he later recalled that he thought of “the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within.”

This turn inward marked Petrarch as the first modern man, according to many Renaissance scholars. However, the psychologist James Hillman argues that these scholars have confused Petrarch’s personal quest to regain his soul with a broader discovery of the human spirit. There are certainly modern elements in Petrarch’s extolling of nature and his desire to climb Ventoux for its own sake. Yet the climb was clearly intended as a metaphor for his spiritual aspirations, which culminated in a turning away from the very thing he had gained by reaching the summit. Petrarch’s later description of the experience was self-consciously a conversion narrative, modeled in part after St. Augustine’s account of his own spiritual conversion in the Confessions. Both experienced a sudden confluence of outer circumstance with inner spiritual condition, a phenomenon that the depth psychologist Carl Jung termed a synchronicity. "The good which I now sought was not outside myself,” Augustine had written, a thousand years before Petrarch arrived at much the same juncture. For Hillman, the significance of Petrarch’s narrative was not in his ascent of Mount Ventoux but in his subsequent descent, once he concluded that “nothing is admirable but the soul.”

High places have long been associated with spiritual transformation, whether it be Moses at Sinai, Jesus at the Transfiguration or Muhammad at Mount Hira. When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he was taken to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world. "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me," the devil promised him. The world lay at his feet, yet like Petrarch he turned away. As Jesus later explained to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It was hard getting people to understand that his kingdom was not something that could be observed; indeed, it could found only when they stopped passing themselves by. He told the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

Francesca Petrarch, Familiar Letters
James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Matthew 4:8-10
Luke 17:20-21

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