I just finished my annual re-read of Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. I first encountered this book when my sister was in college and I was still in high school, and the first time I read it I was working at a camp in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. The copy I own is the 1977 edition; I bought it from Amazon Used to make sure I got the edition that I originally read.
Anyone who knows me well would be very surprised to hear how much I love this book and that I have probably read it at least 20 times.My love for this book is surprising even to me because I often do not like “Christian fiction”: I finally broke down and bought The Shack in the name of cultural literacy and had to force myself through it. Actually, I skimmed most of the second half, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah” as I flipped through the last fifty pages.
I know that my literary tastes expose me as a bit of a Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View. As Lucy explains after he walks out on Freddy singing: “It’s ugly things that upset him. He’s not uncivil to people.” Her mother replies, “Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?” I find myself in this bind when reacting to some spiritual novels, and I don’t like myself very much. I am sure all of these writers are much better people than I am, and I admire that. I just don’t like the writing. Much of it feels like eating a Twinkie when what I want is wheat bread.
And Hinds’ Feet on High Places is wheat bread for me, and I read it every June as I get ready for summer vacation. It is a completely unapologetic allegory, in the tradition of Everyman. Each character is named after a trait: Much Afraid, Craven Fear, Resentment, Suffering, and therefore the book is more like an icon than like a badly written novel sneaking spirituality in the back door. It reminds me of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is a painting I heard of in another of my re-reads: In the Spirit of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete, a Russian Orthodox Monastery near Albany. They are the same monks who raise German Shepherds and write the dog obedience books. The icon shows a group of monks ascending toward Christ while devils shoot arrows at them on the right and a group of angels cheers them on at left.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places is similarly and unapologetically allegorical. The premise of the book is that Much Afraid, a young crippled shepherdess in the employ of the Shepherd, asks to be taken to the High Places away from her Fearing relatives, where “perfect love casteth out all fear.” The Shepherd is overjoyed to grant this request, has been waiting for Much Afraid to ask, and gives her as her companions on the journey Sorrow and Suffering to help her up the mountain.
Here I stop and say “Thank you, sir. May I have another” because I need this God Smack. Asking to walk a spiritually evolutionary pathway is not buying an airline ticket to Jamaica. It is taking off your shoes and heading over the hot coals. We are “too, too solid flesh” and the only way to get it in shape is through training, which is another reason I love this book: it reminds me of the summer of 1988 when I backpacked through Europe alone. I lived on $20 a day, filling my pockets with bread and cheese at the Youth Hostels and hiking everywhere. My trip included a week in a tiny hostel in the Austrian Alps, far enough up that I could hike up to the snowline. By the end of the summer, I was a Lean Mean Hiking Machine and also quite able to handle myself in just about any strange circumstance.
The allegory is both so true and so overt that it allows complete entrance of the individual reader into the tale. Nothing blocks the reader from inserting the self: no silly plot devices or clever new metaphors that distract. Just a nearly skeletal rendering of the indeed harsh reality of the spiritual journey. Very few butterflies and rainbows but plenty of drear landscapes and difficult delays.
As Much Afraid makes her journey, here are the places she must traverse:
Detour Through the Desert, symbolizing long and difficult periods of bleakness and hardening to difficulty
On the Shores of Loneliness, symbolizing long periods of aloneless and solitude
Great Precipice Injury, symbolizing the truly treacherous task of attempting holiness
The Forests of Danger and Tribulation, symbolizing the hardships that will intensify once you get closer
The Mist, symbolizing periods of confusion and tedium
The Valley of Loss, symbolizing the seeming destruction of all that has been gained
The Place of Anointing, symbolizing the times of peace allowing preparation for great tragedy
Grave on the Mountains, symbolizing the requirement to give up all you had hoped for
Healing Streams, symbolizing the grace that comes after complete surrender of personal will
High Places, symbolizing the freedom and clarity of spiritual life beyond personal dreams
This book knocks me flat every time I read it. It is the astringent reminder of just how difficult a task it is to set oneself on the spiritual path. Along the way, Much Afraid’s enemies attack her repeatedly: Self-Pity, Resentment, Bitterness, they all make an appearance and try to divert Much Afraid from her goal. I have been there, and these vile enemies, which of course come from within, do try their darnedest to halt my progress.
I re-read this book every year as an assessment: Which of these places have I recently traversed? How did I handle it? Where am I on this journey? Which of these enemies am I listening to?
This year, with all the knowledge about Asperger’s I have gained in the past twelve months, one scene jumped out at me in starker contrast than in my previous readings. Much Afraid is told she is very close to her goal and is directed to go alone to a rocky crag where a silent preist stands at a grim altar. The Shepherd tells her, “Take the natural longing for human love which you found already growing in your heart when I planted my own love there and go up into the mountains to the place that I shall show you. Offer it there as a Burnt Offering unto me.”
Much Afraid, knowing that she hears aright, proceeds. She accepts that 1) she may have been deceived by the Shepherd all along 2) she is giving up her heart’s desire 3) her enemies might be right that she will be abandoned on “some cross” 4) she will do it anyway because she wants the Shepherd more than the promises. Fearing she cannot do it, she asks the preist there to do it for her and also asks him to bind her in case she struggles to prevent it.
When Part One ends, she has suffered her all, given her all, and accepts that “It is finished.” This part is so important and struck me so this time through. I can trace my own path through every one of those parts of the journey: suffering, loneliness, injury, confusion, danger. But I am not sure that I have made this final sacrifice.
Many of the Asperger’s books say that the hardest part for a spouse is to accept that you might never get the kind of love and empathy one would wish from a partner. Many women cannot accept this and leave to find it elsewhere. Other women take the gifts that are offered and find that empathy elsewhere, in friends or family.
Perhaps this is Summer 2009’s leg of the journey. I know I am not leaving, and I know I am currently seeking empathy and love in other places such as friends. But I also know that I have not yet really made that sacrifice and it lies before me.
For all she knows, Much Afraid has accepted her own death on that altar. And yet when she awakes after three days, she bathes in Healing Streams, is healed of all deformity and disfigurement, and is finally able to leap like a deer. She is turned into Grace and Glory, and her companions Sorrow and Suffering become Joy and Peace. These are the promises of the High Places, and yet here’s the rub: they lie the other side of that grim grave.
I know I’m not there yet. I know I’m closer to it. I know I fear it. Tough as I appear, I don’t like pain. I know that this event will be unseen, unknown, because it will happen inside.
The other annual event linked with this book is my climbing Bald Peak, which is in the Berkshires, an hour’s hike from the Bartlett Camp. I go there to steel myself and to physicalize the truths of this book and of every great spiritual tradition I have ever encountered. I also steel myself by listening to this beautiful album: Doug Howell’s settings of the poems from the book, which are all from The Song of Solomon.
Maybe this is the summer I finally get beyond the reach of Resentment and Bitterness and Self-Pity by ripping that human-love plant out, but maybe it’s not yet ready to be uprooted. In the meantime I will at least once again set my foot on the path, because the invitation is always there.