I’m sitting in the Mount Temple wing of the Chateau Lake Louise, looking at the Chateau facing Mount Temple, framed in stained glass. It is mercifully quiet in this hallway, as the tourists are unaware this wing exists and the Asian businessmen’s conference has just broken for lunch. Even the millennial in me is satisfied as electrical outlets abound and I’m sitting at a long executive-style table, a French-Canadian couple across from me. Seems I’ve happened upon an alpine cathedral.

Having just spent the last eight months living at 7,000 ft at the base of Mt. Timpanogos’s eastern bowl and the last two weeks driving around Banff National Park in Canada, mountains are at the top of my contemplation.  Vocalizing these contemplations to my 90-year-old grandma on our way up the Banff Gondola sparked a memory for her. She was taking an art class at BYU, and the assignment was to sketch the Wasatch Range. Upon completion, her professor’s comment was: you’ve never been into those mountains, have you? She replied that in fact she had not and asked how the professor knew. The professor: you sketched them as if they are a singular wall, without any depth. They aren’t 2D, you know.

They aren’t 2D, you know. From one vantage point, the immensity and distance of any peak forces the eye to flatten it and treat it as a back drop, a screen painting hung back-of-stage in the playhouse of our daily lives. My daily commute never ceased to take my breath away, realizing behind that sheer white wall of Timp’s western face was a dynamic flow of rock, snow, water, flora, and fauna. One Saturday in the fall, I stopped to watch a group of painters on the side of the road. I thought: surely these women had the right idea and could capture this edifice in a fully realized, dimensional way. Not because of their lack of talent or the inadequacy of the medium, but the paintings conveyed the same 2D sense of place. There were some trees and hills in the foreground, and then this white wall rising in the mid- and background. I poured over topographical maps and 3D renderings of Timp, in pursuit of a representation of what I felt on my daily drive. In their pursuit of scientific fact, however, they’d lost the surprise of the mountain… what it felt like to think you know a thing, only to move two feet to your left and be surprised by the unfamiliarity of it all again.

Packing all these thoughts right next to my hiking boots, I drove into the Canadian Rockies. We jumped from Highway 95, which sits on the Western side of the Rockies, into the Trans-Canadian Highway which runs North and South between two distinct ranges. Headed South to Canmore, you see one side of this range and loop around the bottom and up to see the peaks’ Eastern side. They’re wildly different. It took me driving back and forth to Banff three times to realize they are in fact the same individual peaks. And this morning’s drive to Lake Louise managed to distill –finally—the concept felt among mountains but never captured in any kind of rendering. Perspective.

Mountains dare you to stare at them. They stand there, proud and unabashedly above your average view. They require you trace their ridge lines across the top, winding your way down to follow the water flow, noting the colors and textures of trees bold enough to grow on their surface, to count the strata in sheer mastiffs and think back over the millennia it took to form each one. Curiosity grabs you by the scruff of your collar and drags you around the corner of that cliff, just to see if it really does drop. You hike and hike, nose to the ground ensuring safe footing. Finally, you look up. The mountain you memorized is gone. The cliff you thought you knew --you imagined yourself clinging to the edge of-- is a gentle slope wading into the bottom of a lake. A lake you didn’t know was possible.

Religion asks us to do the same. To direct our gaze above, below, even around our daily view. Those “big” questions: where do we come from? Is there anything after we die? What is the meaning of life? Christianity and most other Western religions are caught up here. But on the other side of the world, Eastern religions also ask you to narrow your focus to this very moment. Right here. How do I derive meaning from the moment just sitting at the tip of my nose? Is there divinity within me and how to I tap into it? These questions pile one on top of each other and have for thousands of years, fashioning this mountain we call religion. From one vantage point, we can see some aspect of it… but as I grow older and travel more, I’m coming to understand that we must move ourselves around the mountain if we want to take in the whole of it. Take it in from all sides. Get right up in it. Take a giant step back. Get on top and contemplate what’s below. Look straight up from the 90-degree intersection of daily life and divinity.

As we do this throughout our many lives, we’ll come to understand what my grandma’s professor knew: depth of experience expresses itself in even the simplest sketch. With this depth comes an infinite well of empathy, compassion, and understanding for our self and our fellow human beings. We get to see humanity for the first time, as it really is. Perspective.

Vanessa OlerComment