Learning to read is one of the great adventures of life. In my case, growing up far away in a little town of Patagonia in the 1950’s reading was the great thing. There was no TV and radio was limited, once in a while one could go to one of the two local movie theaters and see some of the marvels the world contained. I remember the news reels and some movies that stayed on my memory for some reason: High Noon which made me fall in love with Grace Kelly at the impossible age of six; The Bridge on the River Kwai one of the first technicolor movies to reach us there at the end of the end of the world.
There were books like a translation of Lost Horizon that much excited my imagination. I could see the Andes from my back yard and I liked to think that perhaps, far into the mountains there was a Shangri-la, complete with monks and buildings shining in the distance. In time I found a book where someone had drawn all the mountains of the Andean region, carefully annotating their heights. I used to look up the familiar peaks to see if I had figured out their height correctly. With practice I learned to calculate how tall a mountain was.
I can’t really remember how the town was back then but I remember home as a quiet place where one could seat by the kitchen stove, watching the fierce southern wind have its way with the Patagonian landscape outside. The house was calm in the long summer afternoons spent reading and waiting for my parents to return from work. For many years to come, the idea of Heaven was going to be tied to those quiet, happy days spent in solitude alone with books. Books were like letters received from friends in far distant countries that one day I intended to visit. My mother used to buy Life Magazine and there I learned about the astronauts of the Gemini program. Decades later when I saw The Right Stuff I could not avoid feeling a strange sense of déjà vu.
Later in life and far away from my home town I read these lines from Exiles a poem by Richard Palmer-James that evoked in my heart the color of those days:
Though now this other life
Has brought a different understanding
And from these endless days
Shall come a broader sympathy
And though I count the hours
To be alone’s no injury …
My home … was a place near the sand
Cliffs … and a military band
Blew an air of normality.
Years later I traveled and got to know other mountains in other lands. There, I once had the strangest dream. Two men, whom I knew to be saints, came to pick me up at my home in Charlottesville. They invited me to sit in the back of a white 1962 Volvo. I was surprised that this particular Volvo model had four doors. I knew the coupé from watching the old British series The Saint but I never imagined Volvo made a four door sedan like that. So we took off up the road that borders the north fork of the Rivanna River, then following Route 29 all the way to Ruckersville where we turned left on 33 towards Harrisonburg. We were about 30 miles on our way when the driver took a left turn at a junction I had never seen before.
As we drove the trees became bigger and some snow-peaked mountains began to appear. I knew there are no such mountains in Virginia so we must have wandered into some other region. In time we left that main highway and entered a narrow dirt road that ended near the shore of a lake. There was a house there which I instantly recognized as “home.” I climbed the side stairs and entered the house, I “remembered” that there was a deck overlooking the lake. I went out to the deck and from the edge I looked at the water. It was calm, green, and very deep. One could not tell how deep it was.
Then I noticed the white cliffs on the distant shore. On top of the already tall cliffs there was a mountain, a huge massive mountain. I quickly tried to figure out how tall it was. My first estimation was about 15,000 meters (that would be about 50,000 feet). I said aloud “that’s impossible” as my eyes tried to see the tip surrounded by clouds. Then I heard a voice gently say “the mountain is as tall, as the lake is deep.” I woke up at that moment. I could see the day break outside my window. Then I realized that I was surrounded by what I could only call “solid peace” and I wished with every fiber of my body to go back to that dream and stay there.
The next day I attended Mass the reading was from the Book of Sirach:
Let us fall into the hands of the Lord
And not into the hands of men,
For His majesty is as high
As deep is the mercy He shows.
We are exiled from the marvels of God’s presence and the peace that His mercy freely gives. C. S. Lewis said once: “We read to know we are not alone.” Every word of hope a man writes is like a letter from our distant home.