Once in a while, I get to ride the Charniaz Express. Nestled in the Alps between the villages of Les Gets and Morzine, close to the border of France and Switzerland, it is a chairlift with a magic all its own. At the top, beyond the tangle of battered down pistes and unspoilt powder, there is a little mountain hut and a chiminea with a roaring fire. The hot chocolate is rich and sweet with swirls of fresh cream that turn liquid on your tongue and the air is so cold and pure it almost hurts to breathe. It’s my favourite place in the whole world.
If you get there at just the right time you can sit in a battered yellow deckchair in the snowy silence and watch as dozens of hot air balloons rise from the valley floor below and float like bubbles between the glistening mountain peaks on either side, vivid colours dancing on a backdrop of white snow and blue sky.
On other days the view is cloaked by the wildness of an alpine storm. As silence gives way to howling wind, nature flexes her muscles in an explosive display of raw and untameable passion. Braced against the needles of ice and snow that sting even the smallest area of exposed skin it is impossible not to surrender to the awe that presses insistently on your soul.
Then there are the days when the clouds are low. From your vantage point on the mountain you find yourself looking down at a dense canopy which slices the landscape in two, separating the majesty of what is above from the misty grey valley that has been swallowed up in cloud.
If I could, I would pitch a tent beside the fire and spend my days up there, hands wrapped around a warm mug and heart awake to the majesty of it all. The reality is that much of life is lived down below, in the shadow of the overhanging cloud, where the memory of the mountain is constantly mocked by the creaking and groaning of an ageing world. It is in the chill of the shadows that the questions come. How can I write about breathtaking beauty when the valley is so full of darkness? Why keep longing for the mountain top when brokenness pours from the newspapers, TVs and radios in a tangled mess of hatred, anger, sickness, and famine until my heart feels like lead and my legs have no strength left for the climb? Is there a place for majesty when cancer stretches out its long and sinewy fingers once more, clawing and grabbing at someone else I love?
Last year, inspired by a Rabbit Room piece on the subject, I somewhat sceptically asked God to show me a picture of what he wanted me to do with my life. Almost immediately I was drawn to that spot on the mountain, where my hope has been rekindled in a surge of holy awe. Standing there, I have often felt an almost uncontrollable urge to fill my lungs and shout with all my might just so that I can hear the sound ricochet from hill to hill, shaking snow from trees and startling unsuspecting birds into flight.
And God said, “Do it!”
“Come with me to the mountain. Drink in the glimpses of all that is still to come. Open my word and search for me until you are consumed by visions of my glory, then take what that you have witnessed there and shout about it. Shout and shout until you have no breath left and then shout some more. Fill the frozen valley with sounds of hope so that the people who are trapped beneath the cloud will know that I am here. Tell them that the true landscape is infinitely more vast and beautiful than what their eyes can see. Join your voice with the others as the songs and stories of hope tumble down the mountain, piercing through the canopy of cloud and filling the valley below with shafts of holy light. Tell them to hold on because one day soon a single breath will scatter the clouds like ashes on the wind and light will banish the shadows forever.”
The truth is, beauty and longing and majesty matter most when the clouds are thickest. They matter because they are a reminder to our souls that all is not lost. On the days when it seems like the raging torrent of all that is not will surely sweep away forever the good and real and true, we need to be reminded that above the swirling cloud is a God who sees what we can not.
And so, every chance I get, I’m going to ride the Charniaz Express. On the way up the words of Isaiah 40 v 9 will be ringing in my ears:
“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.