I didn’t expect that a mountain climbing movie would move me spiritually. Yet “Touching the Void” did. Roger Ebert’s highly laudatory review focused on how harrowing and gripping the movie was. Yes, I shared his can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-screen experience, though it was a television in my case.
But this Commonweal review by Rand Richards Cooper better describes the deeper dimensions of “Touching the Void.” I won’t bother to summarize the story in any detail—you can read the reviews if you’re not familiar with the film. It is about two British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who attempted an ascent of a hitherto unconquered face of a mountain in the Peruvian Andes.
They succeed. On the way down, though, Joe breaks his leg and ends up in a deep crevasse. Simon thinks he is dead. For some reason that isn’t clearly explained (maybe there isn’t any), Simon heads back to their base camp without checking out the crevasse and confirming Joe’s condition.
Joe is deserted. He’s at the end of his rope, literally and figuratively. Joe is exhausted, freezing, and seriously injured. He assumes that Simon must have fallen also, and this is the reason why Joe’s pleadings for help have gone unanswered. He figures that Simon’s dead body is on the other end of the rope that connected them.
Joe pulls on the rope, expecting that he’ll soon feel Simon’s dead weight. The end cascades down from the top of the crevasse, falling into his lap. Joe sees that it has been cut. Simon had to let Joe go in order to save his own life. Joe begins to realize that he is on his own.
Morning comes. And the real-life Joe narrates the scene being reenacted by the actor stuck in the crevasse:
“By ten [o’clock] I was totally convinced that I was on my own, that no one was coming to get me. I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I had long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered, if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn around and say a few Hail Mary’s, and say ‘You get me out of here.’ It never occurred to me. If I had even thought that was a way out, or some way of solace—it was time to meet my maker and go to paradise—I would have stopped still, and I would have died.”
Joe experienced in reality what I conjectured in my last post: What would I do if I was in a seemingly hopeless situation, expecting that death’s door was about to open and let me in? Would I start to have faith in something, someone, some power that had no meaning for me before? Or would I act as Joe did, relying on his own strength, determination, and courage?
One of my best childhood friends, Todd Wells, once told me about advice he’d gotten from his father. Todd lived on a ranch, where unexpected problems frequently cropped up. His father said, “Look around you. Right around you. You’ll find what you need to deal with the problem.”
Todd told me that he thought of that when he was in his basement working on his heating system. An oil line broke. He didn’t panic. He scanned his immediate surroundings and saw a rag within reach. It served as a temporary plug for the leak. If he’d thrown up his hands and rushed around in a panic, the spill would have been much worse.
Similarly, Joe says, “You’ve got to keep making decisions. If you stop making decisions, you’re stuffed.” He doesn’t wait for a sign from God. He decides that the only possible way out is to go deeper into the crevasse, since he can’t climb up.
From here on, “Touching the Void” is virtually a non-stop spiritual metaphor. If you want a dark night of the soul, then break your leg, be abandoned by your climbing partner, escape from an incredibly deep crevasse, and then make your way down a glacier and moraine, one painful step (and fall) at a time, not knowing if anyone will be waiting for you.
Watching the movie, I kept thinking of the first sentence of my book, “Return to the One.” I labored on that sentence a lot. I wanted it to encompass the message of the whole 350 pages that followed. Heck, someone might give up reading after one sentence. They shouldn’t go away empty-minded.
I ended up saying, “If something has been lost and you’re not sure where to look for it, there’s good reason to start searching right where you are rather than far afield.”
I love that sentence. And not because I wrote it. Because it is so true.
Joe survived because he found what he needed to get out of the crevasse and down the mountain right at hand. He didn’t wait to be rescued. He didn’t expect a miraculous intervention. He didn’t pray for guidance.
What he did was respond, moment by moment, to the situation he found himself in. He never gave up. He kept moving. First to the light, then to his base.
I’m touching my own void. Aren’t we all, whether we recognize it or not? It isn’t far away. I see it whenever I shut my eyes. Lying in bed at night, waiting to go to sleep, I’m touching the void of that unfathomable darkness where I speak my thoughts. I talk to myself. I chatter away to nobody. I pull on mental ropes that aren’t attached to anything. I don’t hear a response from the void that isn’t the echo of my own voice.
Do I go deeper into the darkness, the mystery? Or do I wait for death to propel me into the place where I’m afraid to descend on my own? I think of Joe. I realize that my thinking is part of my clinging to where I am, rather than where I need to go. Still, the thoughts are bringing me closer to the edge of letting go.
Joe had forsaken his Catholic faith. St. John of the Cross never did. Yet the two men are cut from the same cloth. Here’s an excerpt from “John of the Cross: Selected Writings” (Paulist Press):
“John was locked up in a small room [by the Church], six feet wide by ten feet long, that for a window had only a tiny opening, two inches wide, high up in the wall. There, for about nine months, he suffered in darkness and alone, with little to eat and hardly a change of clothing. In the midst of this severe deprivation, he attempted to find some relief by composing poems in his mind…These verses reveal that in that cramped and barren prison, deprived of all earthly comfort, in the dark night of the soul, John received some rays of light and was divinely touched by glory in the substance of his being.
“Here, too, in his stark experience of emptiness, a spiritual synthesis began to take shape in his mind, in which the way to union moved directly up a path he later designated by the word nada, meaning ‘nothing.’ ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mountain nothing.’”
Joe was sustained by that nothing also. And so, I’m confident, would each of us. It is right at hand. The difficulty doesn’t lie in finding it. It is in not hiding it from ourselves.