At around 9 o’ clock Wednesday night, I was paralyzed against a steep, 50-60 foot high rock cliff 100 feet above the highway, a head lamp bouncing sporadically around my neck and bats swarming me, nicking my helmet with their wings. My hands were soaked in sweat, making it difficult to grip, and my legs rattled, making it equally difficult to keep climbing. I was to scramble my way up to the very top, where two quickdraws (see below image)
were clipped into some chains. Once there, I’d secure myself, untie the rope from my harness, unclip and stash the quickdraws, weave the rope through the chains instead of the quickdraws, retie my rope, and then be pulled back down to earth. I’ve seen this done dozens of times, but for some reason, I hadn’t gotten around to doing it myself until Wednesday.
Under normal conditions, climbing that wall would be a dream. A beautiful view, challenging cracks, and a whole lot of self-congratulations would be met upon completion. Wednesday night, however, it was dark. The holds were impossible to see without a lamp, and sometimes, I had to blindly feel around for them. Bats and birds flapped around the cliffs, my friends seemed miles below me, and to top it all off, that cliff was on top of an even steeper cliff that made you dizzy to look down. It was an exciting and equally frightening challenge.
Now, I’ve climbed walls of equal height before. I’ve bouldered sheer walls in the dark without much pause and climbed up off-trail sites in Logan Canyon that are extremely sketchy. For the first time in a long time, however, stuck on that wall, I completely choked. I made it up and I made it back down in one piece, but not without serious trepidation and anxiety.
Dwelling on that experience this week has given me valuable insight, not only insight about myself and my limits, but about a few scriptures in the Book of Mormon that have always bothered me.
“And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree. And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed…and after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.”
— 1 Nephi 8: 24-25, 28
I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I’ve been so confused as to why those who clung to the rod fell away. Isn’t clinging a good thing? I’d ask myself. _Isn’t desperately relying on the strength of the iron rod positive? _
Not so fast, I think now. The word “clinging,” in the context of rock climbing and, in extension, journeying to the Tree of Life, is very obviously a bad thing. Here’s why:
In spite of how many times I have climbed high walls, that climb Wednesday completely derailed me. Hanging in the darkness of the canyon, I lost trust in both my rope and my tether, and therefore, found myself clinging to the rock face and even, needlessly, my rope, terrified that if I wasn’t clinging, I would fall. I somehow managed to convince myself that the rope wasn’t strong enough for me and that my harness wouldn’t hold me, and instead of having faith in the infallible, I relied on my own strength.
I imagine that those who clung to the iron rod did so because they, like me, were terrified, not because they had faith in it. Lost in the mist of darkness at the edge of a precipice with nothing to direct them except the roar of the water, the uproarious mocking of the jerks across the street, bouncy head lamps, clumsy bats, and the iron rod, they chose what was most reliable, but they still remained unconvinced that it was reliable. They weren’t there to reach the top triumphantly; they were just there because the rod was there and they likely felt stuck and pressured into it, consumed with their surroundings instead of their destination. They weren’t actually relying on the strength of the rod when they clung to it, but on their own grip.
Relying on your own grip, I can attest, makes the climb harder. Instead of moving forward with faith and peace, you’re driven slowly and haltingly by fear, your body unbending and weak. On most rock walls, having faith in the rope allows you to be flexible, to focus on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there instead of whether or not you’ll fall and die. Falling and dying are not obstacles to the faithful.
Because I let fear direct my climb on Wednesday, I didn’t enjoy my journey much, neither did I appreciate reaching the end of it like I would of if I’d just been confident. Like the clingers, I was a bit ashamed of myself. I was embarrassed because I lost faith in my equipment mid-climb. Those who clung were embarrassed because they never had faith in the rod to begin with.
Stripping away my metaphor from the iron rod metaphor, we get to the basic truth that the word of God only helps us when we consistently and faithfully seek it. If we only read the scriptures and watch Conference because we’ve been told to or because everybody else is, or for any other wrong reason you can think of, we miss true progression. We don’t rely on truth and doctrine so much as we cling to routine and others’ opinions. We miss the Lord’s limitless love, because instead of focusing on how His words can direct us, we focus on getting our reading over with and we maybe focus on how dire and directionless our present situation seems. We care too much about what misdirected sources tell us and care too little about what the Savior promises us. He doesn’t want us to cling. He wants us to have faith. He wants us to hold onto that rod because we trust him, not because we’re blinded by fear or doubt.
The Savior is the rock of our salvation, the stumbling block to those who don’t seek or trust him, but also the glorious way to the top of the mountains and a divine view we can get no other way. We must only have faith in our capacity to climb and in the equipment he’s given us to help get us there. The way might be steep and narrow, our environment dark and confusing, but with the scriptures, with the prophets, and with our faith, we will always reach the top. And let me tell you, the moon and the streets and the hills and the trees are stunningly beautiful up there.