Alex Honnold is a 29-year-old rock climbing prodigy. He is the only climber ever to have completed the Yosemite Triple. That’s 7,000 feet of sheer wall in one day. His climbs are absolutely stunning. Take just one example: Moonlight Buttress, called “Moonlight” for short, a climb with 700 feet of splitter finger crack—that’s climber lingo for 1-inch fissures up a straight blank wall. To climb it you have to wedge two fingers of each hand into the fissure, keeping your toes resting against the flat wall. Forty years ago, no one thought it could be climbed. Alex Honnold completed it free-solo; that is, without ropes—just him and his chalk bag dangling a thousand feet in the air, hanging by a couple cubic inches of rock.
Nowadays the Christian life can seem a bit like a free-solo climb. You hear our Lord tell you, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” “love your enemies,” “if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out,” and “take up your cross and follow me.” You look up and reel at the imposing height. Not only is the summit high, but you face stiff winds of secular opposition. You know your weakness, and in this wind you question your grip. You get a good start, but a few hundred feet up you look down and your head swims with vertigo.
Vertigo is deadly for the free-solo climber. Alex Honnold was once asked what it feels like to be hanging on a cliff with no ropes. Does it give you an adrenaline rush? “No,” he said, “if I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong.” The free-solo climber has to stay focused; he has to be confident. If his confidence slips, if his resolve begins to shake, if his focus gives way to vertigo, that is when disaster strikes.
In the Christian life, in your climbing to reach the heights of perfect charity, you can easily be overcome by a similar vertigo, a deadly failure of confident hope of attaining holiness. You get off the ground, hundreds of feet high maybe, but sooner or later you find yourself at a tough juncture. You don’t seem to be making any headway. The winds of public opinion pick up, beating against you. Your fingers are fatigued, your legs begin to shake, you look up and look down—you can’t see any ropes. Then the vertigo sets in.
Then at this moment, when you feel about to slip with nothing to stop your fall, you remember the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). On the verge of falling, you utter one simple prayer: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
No sooner have you said those words, then your grip finally gives way . . . but you have not fallen.
You relax your hands and find the rock itself is gripping you. You thought you were a daring, ropeless free-solo climber, but though you were free you were never solo. The rock was always right at your fingertips, pushing against your feet with each reach, hugging your hands with each hold.
Today, when Christian witness demands such great courage, we must remember that God does not command the impossible. What he has begun in us, he himself will bring to completion. He is our glory, the summit which we seek, but also our safety—the rock to which we cling. We can trust in his grace, his life living in us. We can boldly strive for holiness. We can make a daring leap for sanctity. He himself is the way we traverse. He is the truth that holds our hands. He is the life that animates our reach.
Free-solo climbers like Honnold clutch at cold, dead rock. His confidence is in his own strength. I cling to a rock that saves. My confidence is in the Lord. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress—I stand firm.
Image: Sonia Sevilla, Kamar Zard Buzhan – Hiker – Nishapur