Finding God in the Highlands

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Highlands
Credit Anna Jahn via Unsplash

Irish Jesuit Ashley Evans describes his spiritual journeying in the Highlands of Scotland.

Sgurr Nan Each is not an impressive Munro mountain. It emerges gently on the east side of a ridge joining it to two larger Munros and it nestles humbly behind the high ridge of Sgurr Mor to the North. It is thus not visible from the road that runs from Inverness to Ullapool nor indeed is it visible from any surfaced road anywhere. It ranks a mere 266th among 282 Munros (a Munro being a Scottish mountain over 3,000 ft tall).

Yet this mountain now occupies a special place in my heart. This year, I climbed across from Sgurr nan Cloch Geala to reach Sgurr Nan Each, my 200th Munro. It was fitting that I climbed this last Munro as I was preparing to return to the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia, having completed my sabbatical break.

With a little help from my mountain log, I can remember each and every one of my Scottish Highland mountain hikes; the weather on the day, the steepness of the slopes, the strength of the wind, the type of animals or people that I met on the route. In particular, I can remember vivid moments of beauty or challenge that resonated with my spiritual journey.

Spiritual Exercises

These memories are, in fact, similar in power and potency to certain contemplations and meditations that I experienced during the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. My mountain journey seems to run parallel to the journey that I undertook while following the Spiritual Exercises. This year in March, I completed the 30-day retreat for the third time. While I received many graces during the retreat, I also noticed one huge challenge that needed to be faced. Sgurr Nan Each will remain in my memory because while staying for a short while on the summit, I realised that I am now facing down some fierce inner demons in a definitive and decisive way. This is the real challenge.

I have learnt from family members about the addictive power of disordered desiring, thinking and acting. When Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members speak about inner demons, their words carry an authenticity that I have rarely met elsewhere. The 12 steps programme seems to reveal the depth of these previously unnoticed disorders in the soul. It is as if the spontaneous combustion and energy at the heart of the inner psyche is oriented already towards self-centredness rather than other-centredness.

As St Augustine insisted, only an inner gift of grace from the depths can free the soul from its own prison. Outside encounters can provoke a crisis that leads to openness to receive the inner grace. The social welfare people had threatened to take my cousin’s daughter away from her. A mother’s love became her primary motivation for recovery.

Cairngorms and Scottish Highlands

When I arrived onto the top of Sgurr nan Each, it felt like the end of a journey that began in Ballymun in 1989 when Michael Paul Gallagher gave me a present of a book on the Cairngorms. Presumably he felt that I needed to open my horizons beyond repeated ascents of Irish summits.

So I heard the call. In Glencoe, the mist was down to the road on the day that I set forth to conquer Bidean Nam Bean. Since the summit was only four hundred feet higher than Carrauntoohil in Kerry, I figured that I was well prepared. This was a foolish assumption. After snaking my way up onto the wind-swept ridge, my rain-soaked map began to disintegrate. I reached the summit cairn shrouded in black mist. Now all I had to do was follow the compass bearing down safely. Bidean Nam Bean had other plans…

Mountain highs and lows

While descending down a steep incline which I had persuaded myself was a trail, I found that I had to face the rocks and grass while lowering my boots gingerly down to the next foot-hold. Suddenly while standing on a grassy ledge, the clumps of grass gave way simultaneously and I was falling a good 10 feet into space. Luckily, a large slab of rock awaited me which smashed into my back and legs and knocked all the wind out of my lungs. I lay there for about 10 minutes wondering how much damage was done.

I managed to hobble down the mountain and crawl back to the hostel where I had to rest for three days. Bidean Nam Bean had nearly killed me. About nine days later, I was ready for another big climb. Once again the weather was terrible. At the base of the mighty Braeriach I found climbers who had turned back as the wind, rain and mist promised only misery and danger.

But I went up into the thickening mist, the thickest that I had ever experienced. Relying on the compass and the watch, I timed each leg so that I would know when to turn to find the narrow ridge up. At the top of the second incline, I had a decision to make. Turn back to safety, or trust the compass and watch in the darkest of mists. Slowly and tentatively I moved out onto the ridge feeling the increased exposure but not seeing any difference. Gradually the mist thinned out and the rain stopped falling. I emerged onto the summit of Braeriach and found the cairn. The wind was dying down. Slowly I edged along the path over the sheer drop into the corrie lake and found my way down onto the next ridge.  After a while I stopped to take a rest and to look back up.

Suddenly, without warning, the mist lifted like a blanket being removed from a bed and the sun came out. Three corrie lakes with three cliffs arranged in a descending sequence stood before me, each one majestic in its own right. The sun caught the snow and ice remaining on the cliffs which shimmered in the sunlight. Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there. He was speaking to me like He had spoken to Job; “you puny worm, who are you to climb my mountain in this weather? Now behold what I am showing you. No-one has ever seen these three corrie lakes like this before and no-one will ever see them like this again. This is my gift to you. Enjoy it and be gone”. I stood in awe and wonder at the magnificent craggy architecture and knew that I would never forget it as long as I live.

The Hammer, the Horse and the Princess

Every three years, I return to Ireland from the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia. Each time I slip over to Scotland for a mountaineering expedition. I usually climb alone but sometimes I have one of three companions: the Hammer, the Horse and the Princess. The Hammer prefers to camp, so we used to divide the extra equipment in proportion to body weight which meant that his pack was usually twice as heavy as mine. This extra load did not prevent the Hammer from pulling me out from a stream in spate after I slipped on the log crossing it. With a single-handed Highland twist, he managed to pull me right back up onto the log and saved me from a right battering in the storm-filled stream.

On another occasion, we clambered down a steep gully of large boulders thinking that their size would prevent them from moving. This was a serious miscalculation. The whole road began to move under our feet and we had to dance a jig to prevent our legs being crushed under the rapidly moving boulders. From time to time, we could throw ourselves to the side of the gully onto the steep grass for a rest while the boulders stopped moving. As the Hammer’s weight with pack was considerably heavier than mine, his acceleration on the boulders increased more rapidly and his struggle to prevent himself being crushed had to be more energetic. We survived this ordeal.

The Horse is the fastest walker across rough terrain and gradual slopes that you are ever likely to meet. The only thing that slows him down at all are steep slopes. So it is important, when planning a route, to have a few steep slopes at judicious intervals. Otherwise you spend the whole day in a permanent jog to catch up. However for long routes there is no better companion to pull you along.

The Princess comes from a far country and loves to take photographs of Highland scenery. So it is wiser to plan walks with her when the forecast is bad. She walks much faster in the mist and rain than in the sunshine.

Loch Ossian Credit Bod the Lomond via Flickr

Once while staying at Loch Ossian, the hostel warden invited a mighty stag with enormous antlers to manoeuvre itself inside the hall door and then through the dining room door to receive his supper from the warden’s hands. All of us just gazed in amazement. None of us had witnessed such trust between a deer and a human being before. While staying at the same hostel a young German couple invited me to join them for a swim in the lochan. I obliged and politely changed into my shorts. The couple just stripped naked and jumped in. The next morning the blonde again invited me for a swim so I glanced at the scowling boyfriend. She said; “he not come, he does not want, just you and me”. I told her that, unfortunately, I had just put on my porridge and could not leave the stove while it was cooking.

Perhaps those long hours spent tramping through the wilderness have facilitated a corresponding inner journey away from illusions and delusions to the truth about myself and my disordered desiring. St Ignatius of Loyola set the goal of the Spiritual Exercises as freedom from disordered desires so as to be able to discern well. Maybe I never really understood the meaning of these words until now. He spoke of disordered attachments, but the modern word might now be addictions. One could also say that the goal of the AA twelve step programme is “emotional sobriety”.

How things fall into place

The practice of Buddhist meditation has a similar goal. Mindfulness is helping many people wake up to their imprisonment and addictions. However, if my mountain journeys mean anything then it is clear that there can be “no gain without pain”. One has to say no to every false idea, emotion and desire. There can be no compromise or surrender. We need to find our truth and live it fully. We have to let go of all our dreams in order to love our mysterious God fully with our whole heart. Only then can things fall into place in our lives


Ashley Evans SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest from Malahide, Co. Dublin on mission in the remote North-West of Cambodia where he is Director of a Community Learning Centre, a Teacher Resource Centre, a Primary School and a Secondary School.