I love holidays! You could say that writing about a holiday on a blog is a dangerous mix of business and pleasure. But ministry is about the whole of life, and periods of rest and recreation are an essential part of living well. God’s creative work concludes with Sabbath. And human beings are made not just to work but to share in God’s own enjoyment of the natural world.
For me, a holiday has to involve a complete break from office, emails and computer screens. That is in line with ‘resilience’ theory too. This summer, I decided to go for something more strenuous than usual: the Tour du Mont Blanc trek. I have done quite a bit of walking. At school I did adventurous training in snowy mountains with the cadet force. In our 20s, Helen and I did a shortish trek in the Annapurna Mountains. But I now get dangerously close to the age of 60: the Mont Blanc tour is a serious trek and this certainly felt like a bracing challenge.
The Tour du Mont Blanc circles the Mont Blanc massif. It normally takes 10 days and covers a distance of about 180km with a total of 10km of ascent/descent – somewhat higher than Everest. Also, you are supposed to train for these things. Belgium is famously flat. And the only noticeable ascent and descent in my daily routine is one flight of stairs to bed.
But for a Bishop in Europe the Trek has huge appeal. The Alps could be considered the central geographical feature of Western Europe. In walking around this massif you feel at the heart of the continent. And the Trek winds at high level through three of our archdeaconries: France, Italy and Switzerland. It negotiates the stunning high passes and cols that separate (or link) these three countries.
Many people do the Tour in pairs. My son James and I decided we would do it together. With James living in Glasgow and me in Brussels we don’t see as much of each other as we used to, and we get on famously. This was something we knew we would both enjoy. And it was a father-son bonding experience. But the walking is strenuous. And the summer heatwave meant it was hot even at altitude. So we didn’t actually talk to each other much when we were walking as walking itself needed all our effort.
That, I reflected, is one of the significant things about a mountain trek. It is continuously demanding and totally absorbing. Much of the time it was physically uncomfortable. After Day 2 our feet were liberally covered in blisters and we had used up all our first aid plasters. Arriving at the top of a col or a summit gives a sense of euphoric pleasure. Suffering and release from suffering. It is not surprising that Buddhist spirituality seems prevalent and explicit in some of the mountain lodges. A good number of solo trekkers were engaged in pushing boundaries, aiming to discover who they are or what they could achieve under pressure.
There were, though, great opportunities for sociability. The mountain refuges were hospitable and offered surprisingly excellent food and drink. We met and chatted with people from all over the world: Europeans, Chinese, Americans.
So what does one learn from this kind of experience and what are the virtues it fosters?
– Endurance. Not everyone completes the trek: trekkers have knee problems, medical illness, and personal fallouts. On the second night, I lay in bed wondering if we would manage it – the walking was a lot tougher than I had envisaged. And James had already developed a knee problem.
– Patience with your fellow traveller and especially in the heat. I couldn’t manage the ascents as quickly as James; but he hobbled on the descents with his poorly knee. And one night, a large man in our dormitory snored so loudly that the thresholds shook.
– Simplicity. Trekking forces you into a simple rhythm which doesn’t involve much more than walking, eating and sleeping. And happiness is a shower at the end of the day. Coming back down into Chamonix (with so many cars and so much stuff in the shops) was genuinely a shock.
– Courage. In modest amounts. A thunderstorm threatened when we were at the top of our highest point (Mont Fortin); the descent was steep and could have been treacherous had we not managed to get down before a heavy hailstorm arrived.
– Humility. So many people seem so fit! And some people race the whole of the route in 48 hours.
– Gratitude. On the one hand, trekking sharpens one’s awareness of the smallest pleasures and comforts – a well-fitting plaster, a change of clothes, a cold drink. On the other hand, you are surrounded by the most incredible, majestic, breathtaking scenery – inhabited by armies of butterflies, gorgeous alpine flowers and colonies of marmots. Trekking brings you back to the simple realities of life as well as putting you back in touch with the natural world.
And finally… I learnt during the Trek that there are type 1 pleasures and type 2 pleasures. The type 1 pleasure is enjoyable at the time you experience it – a good meal for example. But a type 2 pleasure may not be at all enjoyable at the time. However, it is an experience which – when you look back on it – fills your heart with pleasure and strengthens you for the road ahead. Trekking is a fine example of a type 2 pleasure. I hope the memory of my Tour du Mont Blanc will strengthen and inspire me for the coming term and academic year.