I fell in love with climbing not because I love coughing up chalk dust (I don’t) and think calloused hands are sexy (I do). It was the people. Climbers are generally really awesome people. The right balance of ambitious and determined, yet laid back and friendly. You’ve never known a beer sweeter than one had at the end of a long day at the crag around a campfire with all of the people who chide you and encourage you to be better.
I once found myself in a cabin on Lake Junaluska, NC completely by myself for a vacation. Just me, my Prayer Book, and whatever unseen creatures happened to be crawling through the house. The first day of complete silence was great. I woke up and drank coffee on the porch swing, and stared out at the Great Smokies. I did Morning Devotion out of the Prayer Book and used some much needed mental-bandwidth discerning and thinking about ordination and seminary. It was truly serene and wonderful.
That lasted a day.
By day two, my little extroverted soul had spent quite enough time on its own and wanted out. So my little soul and I drove to the little climbing gym in downtown Asheville. Since I didn’t have a partner with me, I just bouldered for a little while. Frankly, it stunk. I climbed poorly and quit early. I sorely missed all of my friends and climbing partners and realized that, for all my love of the sport, it was all of them that brought me back time and again to the wall.
Climbing is inherently a communal sport. You don’t get to climb alone and it’s even unwise to do so. In climbing, you always have someone there to spot you or belay you. That person will encourage you, point out things you might not see, and badger you until you succeed. You go on trips with several people, and you constantly make new friends and acquaintances both at the crag and in the gym. You might not always have picked those people to be your friends outside of climbing, but you find yourself surrounded by all of these endearing weirdos and you look forward to every time you all get together. Even technique and knowledge is passed down, person to person in succession; you don’t learn to climb by just reading a book. But for all of the people surrounding you in the climbing community, the climb is still ultimately your own. Your partner makes sure you don’t fall, but on the route it is just you, the rock, and God.
Church is like that. You don’t get to be a Christian in a vacuum – we are called to be in community with each other. The great cloud of witnesses and saints before us have passed down their example and knowledge, liturgies and prayers preserved and still uttered together. We are surrounded by people who, though we may not get to pick them and may often disagree with them, will hold onto your rope. They lift you up and support you in prayer and holy friendship and will sometimes even badger you into a better relationship with Jesus. It’s hard, but it’s Good. Even though the journey of discipleship is our own, it is a journey impossible without the companionship of the church that we are called to be.
Although I love the climbing community and love the way my heart feels after a hard session on the rock, climbing will never be able to replace church. Perhaps my restlessness feels abated after a climb, but my soul can only find its rest in Jesus Christ made mysteriously known to me in holy bread and wine. I am ever grateful that, even when I am frustrated by my other sisters and brothers in Christ, we are all climbing the same rock to the same summit. And the love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ever leads us and surrounds us.