Ashley Evans SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest who has been working in Cambodia for over 30 years. In this first of a series of blogposts on ‘Mountain mindfulness’, he draws a striking parallel between his experience climbing Sgurr Nan Each mountain in Scotland and completing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.
Sgurr Nan Each
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. In fact, the only place that the summit can be clearly seen is from the bank of Loch Fannich to the South. Only midgie lovers hike in to visit Loch Fannich. It ranks a mere 266th among 282 Munros in Scotland.
Yet this mountain now occupies a special place in my heart. On the 18th of July 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 width of the streams, the height of the trees, 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.
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.
Four family members have recovered from alcohol and/or drug addiction. I have learnt from them 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.
In his next blogpost, Ashley Evans SJ reflects on a deadly encounter while climbing the Scottish Highlands and describes a majestic experience of God.