Saturday, 29 August 2009

Footsteps and handholds: the encouragement to climb

the cork stone on stanton moor copy

The Cork Stone on Stanton Moor is a natural gritstone feature in the landscape. It is not especially tall, yet throughout the history of this ancient place it has attracted attention and been significant. What is striking now is the obvious appeal it has to those who have the impulse to climb.

Over time a vertical series of foot and handholds has been worn into the rock. Back in the nineteenth century a set of iron rungs were fixed to the stone to make the ascent and descent even easier and safer. Nowadays climbing to the top is a fairly simple matter for those who are agile and fit enough and sufficiently motivated to try. The footsteps and handholds of countless others and the apparent added security of the iron rings is a strong inducement to have a go at this seemingly very achievable climb. They are so obvious as to be unmissable and their intention and purpose is unmistakable. The whole rock becomes a visual incitement to consider moving out of our comfort zone to do something outlandishly different. The question “do I or don’t I?” forces itself into our consciousness and demands an answer, even if a nanosecond later the answer comes back as “no way”.

What we are faced with here is the question of possibility. The tangible evidence that others have climbed the Cork Stone encourages me to believe that it can be done by ordinary people and non-specialists, whilst its limited height puts it in the category of “not-too-daunting” for a first attempt at scaling rock. 

the cork stone on stanton moor closeup of foot and hand holdsIt leaves me wondering what was in the mind of the very first individual ever to climb  the Cork Stone. What was it that compelled them to tackle the comparatively smooth surface of the rock, with not a well-worn or artificial hand or foothold in sight? Like today’s expert free climbers they must have clung to the slightest natural indentations on the vertical surface and found a route which offered just enough adhesion to hold their weight. They would have held on by their fingertips and hauled themselves upwards, all the while scanning the rock for the next natural variation or angularity which they could exploit.

Once this pioneering individual had stood on the top and caught a view no one had seen before, others would have followed, the brave, self-confident, impetuous and foolhardy no doubt being amongst the first to try. Some would have fallen in the attempt. Over thousands of years, however, those who succeeded look to have worn the route into the rock. Natural weathering and deliberate modification seems to have completed the job.

What is true of the Cork Stone is also true of Faith. Many of us come to faith because others whom we trust have made it possible for us to try it for ourselves. Throughout human history countless individuals have explored the surface of God’s presence before us. Billions of hands and feet have found enough grip on the reality of God to haul themselves upwards towards a very different view of life. Their experiences are worn into the collective experience of humanity. The Bible helps us to understand what this risky business is going to be like and of where and how we can expect to find grip. When confronted with the sheer reality of God, we don’t have to figure the route out de novo. The life and death of Jesus offer iron-clad handholds to getting God right. Our hands and feet go where others have trusted to put theirs.

And because of those whom we trusted, courageous faith-climbers who seemed to have a different viewpoint on life and one which was so attractive and compelling to us, there are those of us who dared to touch the rock with climbing intent for the first time. We raised ourselves off the ground trusting to both the rock of God’s love and the footsteps and handholds of all those pilgrims who had climbed this way before us. And now there is no going back. The thrill of the free climb and the vision of transforming the world which it entails is so utterly enthralling. Clinging on to this very personal experienced truth of God and feeling its solidity keeping me aloft,  is actually so much more than I could ever ask for or need. Faith turns out to be sublime.

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