Find out why Paul Valentin, Christian Aid's International Director, took a walk in the clouds.
Read Psalm 121
By Paul Valentin, Christian Aid International Director
It won’t come as a surprise that I want to reflect on my experience of participating in the 70 Munros challenge. A promotional website in Scotland describes my chosen Munro, Beinn Liath Mhor, as taking 'the form of a long ridge sprinkled with white quartzite screes. It gives a fine, steep hill walk of much character'.
It was a challenge; at 926 metres (total ascent 1,070 metres) – not the highest by far, but doing it in the inclement weather that we encountered felt a bit like walking up a ladder into the clouds and then we had to try to stay upright on the top while being confronted with a horizontal Niagara Falls.
Why on earth did we do it?
Well, simple; it was meant to be fun with a bit of teambuilding on the side. And fun it was – travelling up on the sleeper to Inverness, finding our way to the staging point and during and after the walk, there was camaraderie and good conversations, plus a birthday celebration. As a teambuilding exercise I can recommend it, but a bit of prior exercise would be advisable because climbing Munros requires a minimum level of fitness and preparedness.
We also did it as part of Christian Aid's 70th anniversary celebrations . We wanted to support this great idea that our team in Scotland had come up with. As a London-based team, doing something with colleagues who we don't often get the opportunity to work with added to the significance.
Being part of the fundraising is part fun and part seriousness. We don’t lose sight of why we are Christian Aid and why we should be willing to challenge ourselves to do things we normally don’t do.
Like almost everything we do in our working life, we took on a challenge and tried to achieve the desired outcome – getting to the top together and raising funds in the process. We await our final total, but expect to have raised about £3,000.
Perhaps there was a third reason and a very personal one for most of us. There was an element of pilgrimage; setting yourself the challenge to achieve something by going to a faraway place, feeling physical strain and pain, but also getting the sense of achieving something special and reaching a point that we so rarely achieve in our working life; experiencing the feeling of reaching the summit.
‘One can feel infinitely small amidst the overwhelming presence of those mountains and the forces of nature.'
Exploring this aspect one can stumble over a plethora of metaphors; life’s journey, one’s own limits, one’s own insignificance, our interdependence and our habit of taking on causes bigger than ourselves. One could also think of it as part of the climb started by those who founded Christian Aid 70 years ago and that still inspires hundreds of thousands of people to put their faith into action to make this world a better place, to make sure that no one is left behind and that we can only truly honour our God by recognising his image in every human being.
Only a few weeks earlier I had the privilege to meet one of those early visionaries when I met Anne Booth-Clibborn in Edinburgh. I didn’t know she was in the audience I was addressing when I was talking about Christian Aid being entrepreneurial and not afraid of risk-taking and that we were continuing on the path that was first charted by those who took up the plight of refugees and homeless people in mainland Europe after the war. When Anne introduced herself to me after the talk, my first reaction was that I hoped she did not feel I misrepresented what Christian Reconstruction in Europe stood for.
However, we had a most animated conversation about Christian Aid then and now, which made me realise that while ways of working may have changed, there is a strong continuity of principles and of faith. We may only be a small part in that evolving story; individually we may only have a small part in climbing that big mountain but that does not diminish the importance of being part of it.
Find out more about Anne and other amazing and dedicated Christian Aid supporters.
And now to something that brings us back to the pilgrimage element of our Munro challenge.
On the way up the mountain and on some of the peaks, hillwalkers encounter heaps of stones. These cairns were put there by generations of previous walkers to indicate the route, to mark the summit or even to provide some protection against the elements.
Some people carry stones from the valleys below to add to a cairn, while others just gather stones from the vicinity, but they are clearly a man-made element in an otherwise entirely natural environment. Without cairns we would have gotten lost (as in the case where a small cairn indicated that we could safely descend down a steep escarpment). Another cairn provided a welcome windbreak on the first peak.
After we had finally scaled the three peaks of the Beinn Liath Mhor ridge, I started to add my small stones to some of the cairns we passed by. Perhaps that is the way we need to look at our own role in the great mission that Christian Aid is part of.
‘No one can scale the mountain on their own; we almost always walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us.'
We can benefit from the markers they have left behind for us. Even if they are not physically with us any longer, their markers continue to guide us, and occasionally we may have to add our own marker or repair ones destroyed by the forces of nature or by human hands. A good lesson in humility!
In the Highlands, one can feel infinitely small amidst the overwhelming presence of those mountains and the forces of nature, and so it is in this world, where we are surrounded by forces that have the capacity to overwhelm us. The knowledge, as the cairns remind us, that we walk with others from generations past, present and future, and the realisation that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, was perhaps the true meaning of our Munro pilgrimage.
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