Monday 27 August 2012

The Supreme Advantage Of Falling

"...his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat." (Teddy Roosevelt)


I’m borrowing 'Touching The Void', the title of the book by Joe Simpson. Because I feel I've touched the void in some way these past months. Derry calls it convergence while I call it providence - the way I came by this book. I got so fed up of being in bed sick and depressed that I went to our College Library, which is directly across from my room. I went there looking for something to lift, or at least distract me. There’s a collection of old Reader’s Digest condensed books and as soon as I saw the title - Touching The Void - it spoke to me and I took it. The book was written in 1988 and tells the extraordinary story of a mountain expedition embarked on in South America by Joe and his colleague Simon Yates. It’s well worth reading. 

The day after I found the book I turned on Lyric FM radio to hear them advertising an arts programme that was to include an item on Touching The Void - sixteen years after its publication! I was pleasantly amazed and, in my usual fashion, saw some message for me from God in all of this. Adding to my delight was the news that there is a new film out about the book. Some aspects found resonance within me and reflect something about my own life experience. 

Having reached the summit and on the descent, Joe broke his leg. He was leading the way and both climbers were linked together with a rope, Joe's weight dragging Simon, both sliding slowly towards a ledge, edging bit by bit to certain death. Joe went over the ledge and dangled there, all the while dragging his companion nearer to the edge. 

Simon knew they would both die if he didn't cut the rope. If he cut the rope Joe would fall to his death but he himself would survive. He cut the rope, something climbers are not supposed to do. 

Joe fell150 feet off the mountain and fell further into an 80-foot crevasse, crash landing on a ledge, from which there seemed to be no escape. Its walls were sheer ice. There was no way up. He might then just have lay down and died but didn’t. Incredibly he decided to lower himself further down into the dark hole that was beneath him. And down there he found a shaft of light to his side, showing him a way out through which he could crawl, eventually making it back to camp, close to death, just as Simon was packing up to leave.

Spiritually and emotionally I am sometimes required to go deeper into unknown darkness, a darkness called  depression, in order to find light and freedom. And often I stagnate because I fear going down into that hole. 

A surprising thing for me is that Joe, brought up a Catholic, never turned to God, never said a Hail Mary through the entire ordeal. He became an atheist. But maybe, like the dark night of the mystics, he touched God in an unknowing and unspeakable way, in a way that makes God seem absent or not to exist at all. It’s a possibility, though I’m not trying to take away from his choice to be an atheist. Nor would I try to solve his atheism for him. This level of life is intensely personal. Only God himself can deal with us at that depth. 

Anyone who has read the book or seen the film knows that Simon had to make a terrible choice on the mountain, the decision to cut the rope. Had he not taken this decision both he and Joe would have fallen off the mountain and probably would have died. By cutting the rope he at least would save his own life. And by some miracle it was the cutting of the rope that ensured both would live. Guilt and shame plague Simon. Joe has long forgiven him, even dedicated the book to him, but Simon cannot forgive himself. That’s one of the hardest things for a certain kind of person to do. I’m one of them. I am willing and usually able by the grace of God, to forgive anyone but I struggle to forgive myself. This is part of the darkness that is within me. I am blessed to be able to face the darkness, not always without fear but usually with the knowledge that He there, as He was in the thick darkness into which Moses entered on Mount Sinai.


God caught my eye
And my heart from the start
Bounding like a gazelle

Up and upward further

I could do nothing
But follow so strong
The enticement

I reached the summit
Of all height
Earlier than I dared

And in its dizzy delight
Lost my footing
Falling tumbling down

Crashing into my own
Every bit of me breaking

And I cried for the loss
I wailed at the darkness

And in my despair I longed
For death and it would
Not have me

And I lay there halfway
With nothing but the faintest

No way up 
No way but to fall
Again further broken

Into that deepest

Until silence
Became a Word


While I was thinking upward
Is the only way
I saw Jesus leaping

From the height
Down deeper down
To the very pit of blackness

And there

To my astonished eyes
The light shone to show
The exit into hope

And crawling to it
No longer able
To leap

I understood
The supreme advantage
Of falling

Into darkness
And out of darkness

Into Christ

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