When the day began and we set out, full of promise for a day playing beside a glacial lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks rising to over 6000 meters, we knew our chances for perfect weather weren’t great. But the sky held large swaths of blue and clouds only here and there so we too held on to our hope, even as we began to climb in a fog that settled around us, hiding all the grandeur in a thick white shroud.
It wasn’t long before reality began to set in that the weather would not be turning, and in fact might get worse. A gentle sleet changed to soft white flakes gathering slowly on the kid’s wool hats and windbreakers. We huddled beside the now hidden lake and made a makeshift fire from the alpine brush, hoping for enough heat to boil our pot of water for lunch and maybe keep us warm long enough to see the weather break.
I pressed Margot into my chest, unzipping my parka to wrap around her and marveled at how she didn’t whimper or cry, but drifted off into an oblivious sleep. We might as well have been camped out in some luxurious hotel as far as she was concerned. The smoke stung my eyes and the boys draped a blanket over me like a tent, trying to fend off the moisture and wind. I was thankful for their care even in the midst of their own discomfort, as though after having enough of these kinds of adventures they have started to take on the resilience and strength we hoped these experiences would eventually build.
On paper, a trip like this one doesn’t add up to much fun. It involves a lot of hiking-- hard work for little legs and lungs especially at high altitude and with inclement weather. There are many discomforts: the cold, the wind, the smoke in your eyes from a fire (or sometimes not) as your try to stay warm (and fail). The raft we had brought to play on the lake remained deflated, a sort of visible picture of how we all felt as the day and the skies continued to worsen.
Yet strangely, in the absence of comfort and our plans working out, each in their own way rose to the occasion, and somehow in our pain—there was joy. Later, on our way back to warmth and shelter, Ryley would even say “Suffering is fun in a way.” It’s a strange statement, and perhaps not perfectly expressed, but I knew what he meant. And I agreed. I’m not sure entirely why this is, but there is some kind of unseen element there that brings a pleasure you can’t fully name. It’s like suffering and joy dwell somewhere close together. One never far from the other. Especially in the mountains.
In my book of Easter readings, that stretches through this week following Easter Sunday, Henri Nouwen says that the presence and absence of God are never separated from each other. “The presence of God is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it quite easily is perceived as absence. The absence of God, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of God’s presence.”
I think about those hours huddled together high on that mountain pass, a sort of misery mingled with complete happiness, and wonder if this too is like faith. In absence of perceived comfort, there was an unspeakable joy, and strength in many ways was able to shine through. Later, each child in their own way confirmed a delight in having done what we did, that the climb and the glimpse of grandeur and the overcoming were worth it. And Josh and I laughed as we thought of all the trips we have done and continue to do that have a similar story and wonder at why we seek these things. But I think I know, and when I raise my eyes to those hills and watch my children show even a blip of growing in grit and grace, I breathe deeply of the thin mountain air and the absence and presence of God surrounds me and I know that I want for nothing even while I want nothing than to know it more.