“This strength and comfort from the second blaze / came to me, whence I raised my eyes unto / those mountains that had bowed them.” — Dante, Paradise XXV.37-39
I can still remember roaming the cool mountainside, stopping on boulders that jutted out from the ground which formed precarious cliffs. Those ledges beckoned for any who were brave enough to sit on their edge and breathe in the world that lay below them. The soft breeze coupled with the bright sun created a feeling that, here in this place, Spring was more than a season on the calendar; it was alive. Of course, the livelihood of Spring only came after the snows of Winter and the Autumn trees exchanging their Summer clothes for something more sensible. But it was not the weather, nor the outdoor adventuring which brought me to Estes Park, Colorado in September of 2011. I arrived at the top of Pole Hill because I wanted to study the Bible.
Ravencrest Bible School, a small community based out of Ravencrest Chalet, had not been my first choice out of high school. Hunkering down in a school of some eighty-odd strangers, traipsing through the snows in October, and dodging elk in downtown Estes every Wednesday did not sound like a grand time. My primary desire as an eighteen-year-old was not to dive deep into Scripture, at first. When I had submitted the application that February before graduation, I had merely wanted my parents to be satisfied that I had applied somewhere. When my acceptance letter arrived a few weeks later, I had to come to terms with the idea that I would be spending five hours a day, five days a week, for eight months, reading and discussing and wrestling with the Word of God. I warmed up to the idea slowly, and benefitted from a rigorous education which embodied the admonitions of St. John Chrysostom. We learned hymns, read the stories of the Bible, learned to serve one another, and conducted our relationships in the open light of the community (Gamble 195-200). I was receiving an education that I did not understand, and in spite of myself, God moved in me.
During my time at Ravencrest, the presence of God permeated our classrooms, dorms, and excursions. This inculcated a devotion to truth that, in the moment, seemed as though it would never wane. In this way, Ravencrest was what medieval Irish monks called “a thin place” (Balzer 29). This idea of thinness, where we are “honest with God and listen to the deep murmurings of his Spirit,” perfectly captures the atmosphere at Ravencrest. God’s Word prompted soul searching, discovery, and repentance. When we wounded one another, there was no place to go hide; a community of eighty people does not make for continual avoidance strategies. At every turn, maturation knocked at the door, and beckoned that we might step further along the path of righteousness. We read through the entire Bible in my first year, and I found myself reading the same Pauline letter every day for a month if I wanted to understand it. I learned “to think nothing of wealth or worldly reputation or power or death or the present life on earth” (Gamble 205). Thus, for two years, the painful pilgrimage in Estes Park paid for itself with the building of friendships and the grasping of God’s word.
The return to the world below, the thick reality of living and working and having to make time to study the Bible, was more than I could handle at first. A desire to retreat back to the shelter of the mountains, to take Jesus’ moments where he “would slip away to the wilderness to pray” as a model for my every difficulty (Luke 5:16, NASB). But the follow through, where Jesus would return to the masses and give of Himself, kept me from the hermitage. It took years to learn the balance in a world thick with voices clamoring for my attention; the goal became more than survival in the dark. I went on to become a teacher of God’s Word, implementing the strategies and lessons which had done so much to shape me.
But unlike Dante or even Aeneas’s men whom he invokes, I do not suffer the loss of memory as “when the wind blew the weightless leaves away” (XXXIII.64-66). The gift of Ravencrest was the hiding of something invaluable, just as the Psalmist “treasured in my heart” the Word of God (Psalm 119:11, NASB). Still, the sight of a mountain peak still stirs my soul, as if Colorado has seeped into my bones. And when the first real chill of Autumn sets in, I pour a hot cup of coffee, crack open the worn spine of my Bible, and remember that time which some days seems to call out from so long ago.
Dante. Paradise. Translated by Anthony Esolen. New York: Modern Library, 2007.
Balzer, Tracy. Thin Places: An Evangelical Journey Into Celtic Christianity. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2007.
Gamble, Richard M., ed. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.